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Carl Hiaasen on Charlie Crist

in Statewide by

Ah, Charlie, we hardly knew ye.

The lad was but a bronze blur, streaking across the bright Tallahassee firmament . . . OK, streaking isn’t exactly the right word.

What Charlie did was more like scooting or possibly darting, as in darting from one job to the next — state senator, deputy secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, education commissioner, attorney general, then governor.

It seems like barely 30 months ago that he took office as Florida’s chief executive, brimming with ideals and bold notions — wait, it was only 30 months ago!

Now Charlie Crist is moving on, his sights set on the U.S. Senate, a rarely august body that more often serves as a lunch club for dim bulbs, demagogues and ditherers.

By virtue of having a pulse, Crist will be extolled as a young dynamo and embraced by the national Republican Party, which is desperate for a candidate who can appeal to that elusive under-65 constituency.

This presumes that Crist will demolish former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio in the GOP primary, which should be easy unless the governor is unexpectedly beset by scandal, or he says something monumentally offensive during the campaign.

And Charlie’s not an offensive guy. He is, in fact, relentlessly likable. Nobody in public office works harder at being eager and available. He’s the political equivalent of a Labrador retriever, with table manners.

Long after Crist is gone from the governor’s mansion, he’ll be remembered far more for his likability than for his leadership. To say he wasn’t exactly a dominant force during this year’s gloomy legislative session would be charitable.

Charlie isn’t one for tough talk or arm-twisting. His is not a bully pulpit, but a warm and fuzzy one.

But as he launches off on his thrilling new quest, Floridians remain stuck with brutal unemployment, a patchwork farce of a budget and an embarrassing, rudderless Legislature. The schools are drowning, crime is rising, important services are being slashed and we lead the nation in both foreclosures and mortgage fraud.

Yet, judging by the numbers, hardly anyone blames Charlie. You can’t describe his presence as electrifying, but the governor definitely has a gift for appearing sincere, well-intentioned and harmless. These days, that counts for plenty with voters.

The news of his candidacy didn’t gladden the hearts of Democratic leaders, who were hoping Rubio would be the Republican choice in the race to replace outgoing Sen. Mel Martinez.

A darling of the Fox News crowd, Rubio comes from the lunar Limbaugh-Cheney wing of the party. He accuses moderates such as Crist of dodging core Republican values, when what they’re actually trying to dodge is another bleak and humiliating election day.

Rubio has slammed Crist for accepting federal stimulus dollars and last week broadcast a Web video of the governor sharing a stage with President Barack Obama. Considering Obama’s high ratings in the national polls, Rubio’s strategy is baffling, to say the least.

Unlike Crist, the former House speaker has practically zero crossover appeal to Democrats, and he would have been a highly vulnerable opponent in the upcoming campaign.

But now the Democratic candidate, whoever that might be, will likely face a sitting governor whose durable popularity cuts across party lines. Unless he turns up in a Craigslist ad or as a wardrobe adviso to Miss California, Crist will be hard to beat.

As for a legacy, he’ll be known best for his role in the ambitious but problematic project to buy land from U.S. Sugar and convert it for Everglades restoration. The latest version — scaled down radically from the governor’s original plan — was approved last week by South Florida water managers.

If the deal closes, the state will sell bonds to raise $536 million for 72,800 acres of cane fields and citrus groves, most of which will remain in agriculture for years. The land — a desirable piece of the original Everglades watershed — eventually is slated to become reservoirs and pollution-filtering marshes.

However, the plan faces lawsuits and a weak credit market that could endanger the finance structure of the purchase, not to mention the expensive reclamation work.

The sugar buyout is far from being a sure thing, and without Crist in the mix, the state might be tempted to walk away.

Crist says he wants to go to Washington because he can better serve Floridians there. I remember another nice guy who left Washington because he said it was too hard to get anything done. His name was Lawton Chiles, and he came home and ran for governor.

It all boils down to the nature of one’s ambition. Crist wants to be president someday, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But a term in the Senate is six years, Charlie, not two. Try to control yourself.

 

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

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