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Ambitious Public Servant or Political Opportunist? A Charlie Crist Profile

For many political observers, Charlie Crist’s political career reminds them of the theme song from the hit TV show, The Jeffersons.

Well we’re movin on up, To the east side. To a deluxe apartment in the sky.
Well we’re moving on up, To the east side.  We finally got a piece of the pie.

Charlie Crist has always been searching for a piece of the pie.  The flavor didn’t really matter, just as long as each one tasted even better (and got more attention from the food critics).

Charles Joseph Christodoulou, Jr set his sights on political office an early age, working as a staffer for US Senator Connie Mack.  Bypassing the local offices traditionally sought by first-time candidates, Crist capitalized on his Mack connections and shot for the stars in his first campaign, jumping at a chance to represent St. Petersburg in the Florida Senate.  He won.  Crist’s early days in Tallahassee show just how adept he has been at garnering media attention throughout his political career.  Crist took up a variety of issues that sought to cast himself as a less-than-traditional Republican.  While championing the return of prison chain gangs (earning himself the nickname “Chain Gang Charlie”), Crist also pushed for teacher pay raises and funding for the restoration of the Florida Everglades.  In these earlier moves, Crist demonstrated the first signs of how he has successfully advocated “core Republican issues”, such as a charter schools and being “tough on crime”, while also moving to present himself as more of a  moderate by
embracing issues not typically on the GOP agenda—teacher pay and environmental issues.

After six years in the Florida Senate, Crist made a calculated move to challenge popular US Senator Bob Graham, a Democrat.  Everyone, including Crist, knew that he had no chance in hell at unseating the popular Democrat, but it was a way for Crist to build name recognition statewide, and more importantly, build the base for a powerful donor network for future campaigns.

After losing rather decisively, Crist was rewarded with a position as the Deputy Secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.  After a few years in that position, Crist seized at a cabinet opening—Secretary of Education.  He served two short years before the office was changed to an appointed position.  At that point, Crist decided that he was best suited as the State’s Attorney General and ran for that opening.  After one term as Florida’s Attorney General, Crist jumped at the next opening up the latter—the Governorship.  He won by a rather comfortable margin.

Crist’s time as Governor has been no different than his time as Deputy Secretary of DBPR, Education Secretary or Attorney General—he has demonstrated a remarkable ability to espouse popular causes without taking firm positions on anything truly meaningful.  He championed charter schools in the Legislature, but has remained remarkably silent as they have struggled over the ensuing decade with accountability issues and the like.  While Attorney General, he championed the cause of restoring rights to rehabilitated felons—something he delivered on when he became Governor—but has remained silent as many have struggled with the burdensome bureaucracy that has prevented the majority from exercising those rights.  

As Governor, Crist has led the fight for property tax reform—completely ignoring the drastic consequences the cuts have had on local governments and school boards.  He completely abandoned the long-time Republican mantra of “Local Government”, pushing constitutional amendments that stripped much of the power of local taxation from local governments and placed it in the hands of Tallahassee (although the Legislature has played a large part in that shift as well).  He was largely absent from the tumultous budget debate that engulfed Tallahassee over the previous few months.

In fact, Crist’s absence from Tallahassee has been the subject of a growing amount of media scrutiny.  According to an investigation by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, “he had no events or appointments on 62 weekdays — the equivalent of three months. On another 74 weekdays — or nearly four months — his schedule shows him working only part of the day.  The records, from January 2007 through February 2009, list his activities as governor and not his political or personal commitments. The calendars include meetings, flights, public appearances, and details such as ‘downtime’ and ‘depart for residence.'”

Of course, there was also the considerable amount of time Crist spent campaigning with John McCain in 2008.  It became increasingly clear in early 2008 that Charlie Crist’s lifetime ambition was not to become Governor of Florida. In fact, he was ready to ditch it after barely two years on the job for the chance to be on a national stage.  Of course, John McCain had other ideas and stunned the political world with his choice of Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin, after which Crist’s campaigning for the Arizonan Senator lessened considerably.  Any support of the Republican ticket was done via an opportunity to appear on “Face the Nation” or “Meet the Press”—campaign rallies just didn’t draw as much attention.

Charlie Crist is a likeable guy.  Anyone who has met the Governor will tell you that Crist possesses that truly unique ability to make a constituent feel as if they are the only person in the room—a Bill Clinton-type ability, if you will.  Personally, I have a tremendous amount of admiration for the Governor, particularly for his remarkable political skills.  But, as I consider the news that seventeen years after his first election, Charlie Crist is seeking his sixth political office, I can’t help but wonder exactly what Crist’s long-term plans are.  Certainly, with an average tenure of less than three years in each office to which he was been elected or appointed, those plans do not include a long-term commitment to the constitutents that he was elected to serve.

No, Charlie Crist has always worried about capturing the next piece of the pie.  Anyone that believes that the US Senate is his ultimate goal does not understand the mentality of Charlie Crist.  Among Florida politicians, Charlie Crist stands alone in his single-minded pursuit for the next highest office.  Heck, even George Smathers rapid rise to power looks rather tame when matched with Crist’s resume. He is most certainly not cast in the image of such Florida political legends as Charlie Bennett and Claude Pepper, who devoted their lives to serving their constituents.

The 2010 Senate race will be followed up with a bid for the White House in 2012 (or, 2016 at the latest).  One could even picture him ditching DC after serving only one term for a 2-year stint in New York as the Secretary General of the United Nations.  After that?  The possibilities are endless—perhaps the first non-European to serve as President of the European Union….  

For Charlie Crist, there are no long-term commitments, and most certainly, there are no limits to his brazen ambition.

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