St. Pete College students side with Charlie Crist — and it’s not because of Rick Scott’s war on fans

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What could possibly make last night’s Fangate more amusing than it already was? Watching it unfold in a classroom full of mixed-aged college freshman and sophomores whose reactions were almost completely unhindered.

As the world’s most awkward intro to a major debate kerfuffled on live television in front of about 30 St. Petersburg College students there was a moment of questioning. Is this real? That was followed by a moment of bargaining. This can’t be real! And then there was straight up laughter. But as Twitter went absolutely nutso over what became #FanGate in a matter of seconds, those students were somehow more adept at letting the seemingly trivial quarrel over a fan fade into the breeze-free darkness of Florida –err, Floriduh politics to make way for more pressing matters.

While the rest of the country’s Twitter feeds were trending Ebola, Florida was buzzing over a nice cooling piece of machinery. Not these kids. The thing they were most concerned with wasn’t whether or not Charlie’s fan was oscillating or interfering with his microphone, it was public education, student loans, minimum wage – you know, important stuff. Good for them.

About a half hour before things got weird, two professors, one of political science and the other philosophy, asked a series of questions in a text-by-phone poll to ascertain the “civic health” of the students. There were five questions ranging from community service to whether or not they had voted in the last election. The results were almost instantly tabulated to show that, though it was a scientifically insignificant sample size, this bunch was more politically in-tune than the rest of the nation. Even more staggering, 71% of the students in the room voted in the last election. How’s that for voter turnout?

When asked before the debate who they would vote for, there were five Rick Scott supporters, 18 Charlie Crist voters and nine either undecided or ineligible voters. After the debate about half the room had already skedaddled, but of those left two undecided voters made had made up their minds.

And this is where Charlie Crist emerges as the clear winner in Wednesday night’s debate.

“It’s all about being for the people,” said freshman Lilia Mickenzie. “He just went on and on about personal stuff. Nobody cares about that.”

Mickenzie added she thought Scott looked like he was lying because he stuttered. She wasn’t alone.

“I thought he was a lot more well versed and Rick Scott, I was thinking, is English your first language,” political science major Shane Wilwohl said.

Other students noted Scott’s overuse of talking points slamming Crist’s sole term as governor on things like cuts to education spending, increases in college tuition and job losses. During the debate students roared when Crist fired back at Scott that voters don’t blame a global recession on him any more than they credit Scott with a nationwide recovery.

The consistent badgering back and forth between Scott and Crist didn’t sit well with the SPC students, but it resonated even more so against Scott. Prior to the debate political science Professor Earl Fratus asked what the candidates needed to accomplish to win votes. Eager students with waving arms threw out a number of possibilities, but two stood out: be likable and answer the questions. The consensus was Scott did not accomplish either.

“In a debate you should never insult [your opponent] on a personal level,” political science major Evan Shapiro said.

And, despite trying to recover from statewide criticism for dodging questions from reporters, Scott proved to still be addicted to avoiding questions. A panelist asked if he thought a constitutional ban on gay marriage was discriminatory. Scott’s answer: I don’t support discrimination. When asked to actually answer the question Scott stuck to his guns and stubbornly repeated his first answer.

“Be more solid with your issues,” junior Kevin James said. “You don’t play whiffle ball when you’re going for a grand slam.”

Students also tended to favor Crist based on issues they identified most with like minimum wage and education.

“Some people are working 2-3 jobs,” Mickenzie said.

“If we raise minimum wage, doesn’t that also increase prices,” asked Elizabeth England who was one of the undecided voters.

“It’s called inflation,” Mickenzie interrupted.

On education, the students collectively agreed that Crist seemed more willing to ensure public education received adequate funding and college students were able to avoid crippling debt. Crist pointed out several times during the debate that, under the Scott administration, 50,000 students no longer have access to the popular Bright Futures Scholarship. That stood out to students despite the fact that Crist also reduced access to the Florida scholarship program.

“We need more money in education and we need to send more people to college if we’re going to insist on a system that requires degrees,” Wilwohl said.

Students also poked fun at Scott for being the butt of what was most likely a sarcastic slap in the face from his opponent. When asked to say something nice about Scott, Crist complimented him on handling the Ebola crisis.

“It was what you call a left handed compliment because, Florida, we haven’t dealt with Ebola on the state level yet so he was complimenting him on something he hasn’t dealt with,” said philosophy professor Dr. Kevin Morgan.

The students had a good chuckle about Rick Scott’s possible quip back in which his compliment to Crist was something like, “well, that was nice.”

All in all the post-debate discussion was entirely in Crist’s favor. The handful of students who identified as Scott supporters before the debate got the heck out of dodge before you could say “get rid of that fan.”

Speaking of fans…

While students did manage to set that fun little nugget aside in favor of more profound discussion, they did manage to have a little fun with it thanks to their poly-sci professor.

“I think today was Christmas for Crist. If Crist took the opportunity and came out first, it was brilliant,” Fretus said responding to Scott’s claim that he only waited to come onto stage because the Crist campaign said Crist wasn’t going to participate in the debate.

That’s rich considering Scott’s campaign provided the panel with a copy of debate rules they said barred candidates from having electronics on stage. During the intro to the debate a lone Charlie Crist stood on stage complaining that a fan was no topic for debate when things like education and the environment are much more important to Florida voters.

All the roundup of SPC students could do was laugh.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email [email protected]