Who is the real Charlie Crist?
TAMPA - Now that he seems likely to seek office as a Democrat, former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist is being accused by Republicans — and some Democrats — of hypocrisy and political opportunism. But a look at Crist's long political history, while it shows many doctrinaire Republican stances over the years, also includes positions that would fit with a career as a Democrat. In addition to the anti-crime stances that produced his "Chain Gang Charlie" nickname, Crist also has a history of favoring some environmental preservation measures. In addition to his anti-tax and pro-voucher education positions, he has taken populist stances against utility rate and insurance premium increases from the 1990s through his 2006 governor's race.In an interview last week on his long electoral career, Crist said his current views are consistent with his history of economic populism and concern for the environment and education. He also said some of his past hard-line conservative stances were mistakes. "In life, hopefully all of us continue to evolve and become wiser," Crist said. "Learning is lifelong." "With more experience, more time, more reading, more study, people reach conclusions that may not be in lockstep with what they thought when they were 15 or 25 or 35 years old." Among the stands he now thinks were wrong: Crist said he's more comfortable in his new, moderate role. "I was trying to be a good team player," he said. "Becoming an independent gave me freedom from what was expected of a Republican. That had been a struggle for me throughout my career." As he has before, Crist denied that his changes of heart and party were political expedience. "Any positions I take, I take because of what I believe in my heart to be right," he said. Even before he was elected governor in 2006, Crist's maverick stances occasionally irked his GOP colleagues. They included joining Democrats to block an anti-abortion bill in 1995 and, in 2005 as attorney general, refusing to back Republican moves to intervene in the case of a brain-damaged woman, Terri Schiavo. More than any other issue, Crist's stances on abortion have led to accusations of inconsistency or hypocrisy. In the 1990s as a state legislator, he called himself pro-choice. Then, in his hard-fought 2006 primary for governor against Tom Gallagher, which included a battle for religious-right votes, he called himself "pro-life" — but acknowledged he hadn't changed his views on particular laws. Crist's explanation in the interview was simple, if frustrating for those who seek to categorize him: "I'm pro-life personally but I would not impose my will on others." He recalled his repeated 2006 campaign statements that "I'm a live-and-let-live person, and I would rather change hearts than change the laws." After becoming governor and leader of the GOP in 2007, Crist moved more strongly to the middle and said he hoped to change the party, making it more moderate and environmentally oriented. "I wasn't successful," he ruefully observed in the interview. But that was before the election of President Barack Obama, which some critics say was the motive for Crist's move to the middle. Crist said he has yet to decide whether to become a Democrat or run for elected office again, though he's widely expected to run for governor. If he does, some Democrats will accept him, but some may not, according to interviews over the last week. In an attention-getting blog post last summer, former state senator and state Democratic leader Dan Gelber said the party should welcome moderates driven out of the GOP by the tea party movement. "I say, 'Charlie, welcome to the party,' " Gelber wrote. Others repeated a line from outgoing state Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith — "He's welcome to join the congregation, but that doesn't mean we'll put him in the pulpit." To public school teachers, a key Democratic constituency, Crist has a mixed record, but he has been moving in their direction. They viewed his voucher and union dues stances in 2001 as part of a GOP attack on public education. But in 2010 as governor, Crist vetoed legislation that would have abolished tenure and based teacher raises largely on their students' test scores — earning him praise from teachers. "Like many people in Florida, I need to know who is the real Charlie Crist," said Jean Clements, Hillsborough chapter president of the state teachers union. "I completely accept that people can learn and change their positions. But he certainly has some explaining to do (to people) who have seen him on very different sides of the same issue over time." Susan Smith of Odessa, president of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida and a former teacher, doesn't buy Crist's conversion. "I think he's a man without a party and he's looking for a party so he can run again," she said. "It's self-serving, to put it mildly." Crist's environmental record is also mixed. A lifelong boater and fishing devotee, he supported measures to limit or ban commercial gill-net fishing in Florida waters in the early 1990s. In 1998, he opposed use of a controversial power plant fuel called Orimulsion that opponents said posed a pollution threat worse than petroleum. Early in his tenure as governor, he allied with Arnold Schwarzenegger, then governor of California, to launch a state climate change initiative — but Crist dropped that after the economic crash. In 2009, with the construction industry languishing in the crash, he signed Senate Bill 360, a hotly contested law critics say crippled Florida's decades-old growth management programs. Environmentalists pleaded fruitlessly for a veto, saying industry advocates were using the crash as an excuse to gut environmental protections. Crist's populism on utility rates and insurance premiums began early in his career and continued, but sometimes it looked like a campaign tool. In 1997, as a state senator running for U.S. Senate, he sued over a proposed Florida Power & Light rate increase. As attorney general in 2005, just before his 2006 race for governor, he intervened in cases involving FP&L and Progress Energy rate increases. In both cases, the state Public Service Commission denied at least part of the increases, saving consumers hundreds of millions of dollars. Crist took credit for the savings in his political ads. On two issues most responsible for his reputation as a conservative, crime and taxes, Crist said he hasn't changed — but he's clearly showing more flexibility on taxation. "For me, it's always been about right vs. wrong," he said. "I think it's right that people who harm others or commit violent crime should serve their sentence." Crist was famous for his public opposition to new taxes as a state legislator. "He was a disciple of (former Sen.) Connie Mack," said state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon. "He was always, 'No new taxes.' He made speeches on the floor about how he'd never voted for a tax and never would. "What I would tell my friends on the other side of the aisle," Lee said, "is when it comes to Charlie Crist, be careful what you ask for — you may get it." In the interview, Crist said he couldn't remember whether he had ever signed Norquist's anti-tax pledge, but if he did, "it was a mistake." In fact, he signed it during his U.S. Senate primary against Marco Rubio in 2009. But during Obama's presidential campaign, Crist strongly supported Obama's plans for tax increases on the wealthy. "I understand there are (economic) circumstances … that require awareness of the situation," he said in the interview. "We have a problem with our budget." He agreed with wealthy Democratic investor Warren Buffet that "increasing revenues on the ultra-rich is not going to stifle them from investing." Asked to categorize himself politically, Crist used words he's used for years. "I think populist is pretty fair, and that's a pretty consistent theme," he said. "I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the people and the challenges that they face. "I try to be somebody who tries to have a compassionate heart and looks out for the people."
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