Had the vote to remove a controversial Confederate monument been delayed until Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist could participate, he would have opposed moving the statue.
Commissioners voted 4-2 July 19 to move the monument to a cemetery in Brandon, four weeks after Crist had initially joined three other Republicans on the board to vote to keep the memorial in front of the Hillsborough County courthouse annex on Pierce Street.
That vote generated an intense backlash, prompting Commissioner Les Miller to bring the issue up at the board’s next meeting.
Speaking with reporters Wednesday, Crist said he could not attend the July 19 meeting, as he was at a long planned family reunion and wedding in California. Instead, Crist had encouraged Chair Stacy White to delay the vote for the next board meeting, which took place Wednesday.
Crist would have voted to move the monument, he said, if the commission had chosen to move it to a site in Lutz, not Brandon: “I clearly understand what the distinctions are between those two sites.”
Six days before the vote, Crist announced he would support changing his choice, provided the board relocates the statue to a more appropriate site, specifically Lutz or Plant City.
“We’re trying to see where other appropriate sites off the beaten trail would be where, if you didn’t want to see it, you wouldn’t have to, if you did want to see it, you’d certainly have an opportunity to find it and look at it,” he told WMNF radio, noting the Plant City and Lutz sites. “It’s realistic to say we are going to move this because there are too many people who see pain and suffering when they look at this … but I think the board is looking for a site to move it to.”
Though hoping the vote on July 19 would have been delayed, Crist left County Administrator Mike Merrill a “very well worked out plan that I knew would be the best alternative if we were to move the monument.”
Nevertheless, Merrill opted not to present that option to the remaining six commissioners before the vote. Crist subsequently discussed the issue with Merrill and was satisfied with his explanation why he had not done so.
But Crist bristled at the suggestion that he had changed his position on the issue.
“Baloney,” he declared. “I made it very clear from the beginning I was not opposed to finding a compromise and working out a consensus.”
Last month, Commissioner Sandy Murman did change her vote, which angered members of Save Southern Heritage, an advocacy group who argued to maintain the monument in front of the county courthouse. After the vote, Murman suggested that because it was such a volatile issue, perhaps the issue should go before the voters. Her motion did not receive a second vote.
Crist said Wednesday that while he usually thinks putting such an issue before the voters essentially is an abdication of board’s responsibilities, in this instance he agreed with Murman on putting the issue up to a referendum. That elicited a few cheers from the County Center audience.
The comment also elicited some excitement from White, who suggested he could introduce the measure during the meeting, though it would require a supermajority of five votes for the proposal to pass.
“I know how to count,” Crist shot back. “And I know that I don’t have the votes.”
In his 26 years as a lawmaker on the state and local level, Crist said he had never encountered such intensity; he didn’t like it.
“The meanness, the anger, the hatred, the fighting, the discontent on both sides is unprecedented,” he said. “I had two flat tires this weekend. That’s unacceptable. And I think it would have happened sooner but I was out of town, and my car was parked elsewhere.”