THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE -- Dec. 2, 2010 --
Gov. Charlie Crist stepped onto the Old Capitol stage at his January 2007 inauguration to the strains of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for a Common Man,” promising a bipartisan and open state government, with property-tax cuts to ease the effects of a red-hot housing market.
The past four years, though, have unspooled as anything but common.
With Florida reeling from the recession, the housing market limping from its collapse and his own political future deeply clouded, Crist reflected on his winding-down one term Thursday, sitting with reporters for his exit interview.
Once adored by Florida Republicans for his people skills and burnished for future greatness – maybe even the White House – Crist heads toward the exit reviled by many of former boosters now bitter over his defection from the Republican Party and independent run for U.S. Senate, which ended in defeat.
Next stop: Home, to St. Petersburg. And maybe a little lawyering with his longtime friend, John Morgan, Crist said Thursday.
“A defeat doesn’t mean that everything went wrong. I think it means the people made a different choice,” Crist said, during a half-hour exit interview. “We’re in a much different climate today than we were four years ago.”
Crist blamed the economic crash for curdling politics in Florida and the nation, contributing to his centrist style falling out of fashion. Florida’s unemployment rate has climbed to nearly 12 percent – almost four times the 3.3 percent level of the January day he was sworn in. Runaway home sales ended with the housing collapse, and the state is now staggered by one of the nation’s highest foreclosure rates.
“Those who were successful at fully tapping into that despair and concern were successful,” Crist said of the November elections.
Sitting in the Florida room at the Governor’s Mansion, Crist said, as he has before, that his former Republican Party had bolted too far right for him, leaving him with few cohorts in the middle.
“There’s still some reasonable Republicans, like my parents,” he said, pausing, “and my wife.”
While Crist downplayed talk of running for office again, he didn’t rule it out – hinting he could campaign as a Democrat, Republican, or something in between. Crist said Thursday he plans to attend the Dec. 13 unveiling of what is being called the “No Label Party,” a centrist group aimed at nominating middle-of-the-road state and national candidates in 2012.
“No Labels” is being formed by Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to Arizona Sen. John McCain and President George W. Bush, Democratic fund-raiser Nancy Jacobson, and advisers to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, like Crist, an ex-Republican turned independent.
“It’s become apparent to many that the gridlock we are seeing in Washington is having a very difficult, stagnating effect on the country and being able to move forward,” Crist said. “It breaks my heart that we’re seeing that. When I got elected governor, I think what we tried to do and we were initially successful in was setting a new tone in Tallahassee. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of….We were inclusive of not only the leadership of the House and Senate, but the Democrats.”
Now, however, Crist said he was looking forward to being a “casual observer,” of politics and government. A job with Morgan & Morgan, the Orlando-based personal injury law firm that formerly employed Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, appears to be developing.
“He’s been with me a long time in a political sense,” Crist said, referring to the firm’s principle, John Morgan. Of job talks with the firm, he said, “It is serious. He (Morgan) is of the people, for the people. I like that.”
The outgoing governor declined to offer advice to his successor, incoming Gov. Rick Scott. But Crist said Scott clearly faces a new challenge – an emboldened Legislature where Republicans hold a commanding two-thirds of the House and Senate.
“It’s a different set of circumstances - they’re veto-proof. And I feel for him for that,” Crist said. “That makes leverage a little difficult. I have such a respect for the balance of power in government…the three branches need a level balance. And I have concerns for that.”
Looking back on policies enacted over his one term, Crist said he didn’t regret accepting federal stimulus money. Refusing the $24 billion which flowed to Florida the past three years – which Scott has derided for failing to create jobs – would have been a “grave mistake,” Crist said.
He also pointed to his role in the purchase of thousands of acres from U.S. Sugar to help restore the Everglades as a major accomplishment still unfolding.
Crist conceded, though, that much of his legacy was diminished by the economy and politics. Still, he did not expand on his own role in orphaning some once-touted initiatives.
Crist again promoted his push to enact a strict energy plan aimed at lowering Florida’s dependence on fossil fuels by 2020. He said that is a direction Florida should embrace, although Crist did little to advocate the plan the past two years amid resistance from lawmakers and the state’s business lobby.
His Cover Florida health insurance plan, designed to provide low-cost coverage options for some 3.2 million uninsured Floridians, has attracted only 7,000 families. Insurers, Floridians, and even the governor seemed to have little interest in it. Crist on Thursday acknowledged it needed better marketing.
In all, Crist said his administration was handicapped by the deep international recession.
“It’s hard to be better off than before the global meltdown hit,” Crist said, when asked to take stock of Florida in 2010 compared with four years ago.
“But…I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do in a very challenging time. Our graduation rates have never been higher, our crime rate is the lowest in about 40 years, our taxes were not raised, except on cigarettes which, is probably good health-wise…a lot of people who would have been unemployed, but for my acceptance of Recovery Act moneys, would have been out of jobs,” he concluded.
Crist also said he hasn’t been looking at the political path not taken – one that may have seen him remaining a Republican and running for re-election.
“I sleep very well at night. If you don’t follow your heart and your gut instincts, what is it that you’re following?” he said. “I’m very content. Winning an election isn’t everything. There’s a lot more to life.”
Crist added, “I look forward to the future. I don’t know what it holds, but I am excited about it. And I still have a twinkle in my eye every morning when I wake up.