By STEPHEN HEGARTY
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2000
Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg held a solid lead over Democrat George Sheldon on Tuesday in the race to become Florida's last elected commissioner of education.
As he did in the campaign, Crist got off to a quick start and built a commanding lead.
"I'm proud of the campaign, proud of the issues, and proud to be able to support Gov. Bush's education initiatives," said Crist, who kept watch over the election results at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort in St. Petersburg.
The race was to determine who would oversee Florida's public schools for an abbreviated two-year term. After that, the state's education chief will be appointed, as spelled out in a constitutional change approved by voters in 1998.
Sheldon ran a competitive campaign despite entering the race six months after Crist, and despite a daunting fundraising disadvantage. According to the latest campaign contribution reports, Crist had $1.7-million to work with, compared with $503,000 for Sheldon. Non-partisan candidate Vassilia Gazetas raised about $5,280.
That fundraising advantage enabled the Republican Crist to put his name and face on billboards and to start airing television ads more than a month ago. Sheldon waited until the last week of the campaign to run television ads.
"Any time you're outspent 3- or 4-to-1, that makes a difference," said Sheldon, who represented Tampa in the Florida House from 1974 to 1982. "But I still think the campaign wasn't just about money. I think we raised the level of the debate in this campaign."
Despite a brief airing of a negative television ad by Crist, both candidates ran campaigns dominated by visits to schools and discussions of serious education issues.
Sheldon proposed universal access to preschool to get children off to a good start, revamping Florida's school testing to measure student progress throughout the school year, and salvaging the board of regents to oversee Florida's university system.
Crist spoke of offering scholarships to lure college students into teaching careers in Florida, using independent auditors to find waste in school district budgets and creating a system of A-through-F safety grades for each school.
Crist, who earned the nickname "Chain Gang Charlie" while in the Florida Senate, got a new moniker from George W. Bush during a recent campaign rally: "Chalkboard Charlie."
This election marks the third consecutive time a St. Petersburg resident has run for education commissioner, but it appeared likely to be the first time that the local guy won. Doug Jamerson lost to Frank Brogan in 1994, and Peter Wallace lost to Tom Gallagher in 1998.