Q&A with Charlie Crist: Ron DeSantis' policies a 'disaster'; Joe Biden 'one of the best'
After six statewide campaigns over 24 years, few if any have his experience in retail politics
Crist, a one-time Republican governor who left the party in 2010 after a Tea Party rebellion within the GOP, was elected to Congress as a Democrat in 2016 to represent his home of Pinellas County.
The GOP felt betrayed by Crist on abortion and money for charter schools when he was governor 2006-10; he quit the party, spent a short time as an independent, then joined the Democratic Party.
Now, Republicans in the Legislature plan to redistrict Crist out of his seat and Crist intends to return to Tallahassee as governor to exercise veto power over much of what the Legislature does.
“The secret is talking to people,” Crist said as he walked the streets of Tallahassee last week, introducing himself to whomever he encountered and discussing politics and campaigns with a reporter.
Perhaps no Florida politician has more experience in traveling from town to town and talking policy with voters.
The 65-year-old Crist has run six statewide campaigns in the last 24 years. Voters elected him to be Florida's education commissioner, attorney general and governor.
He fell short in two U.S. Senate runs, however, once as a Republican and another time as a no-party candidate. And he lost a run for governor as a Democrat against then-Gov. Rick Scott in 2014.
Crist now leads Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Miami-Dade state Sen. Annette Taddeo in fundraising and polls for the Democratic nomination to challenge DeSantis in November.
But there appear to be two main obstacles in Crist’s way to return to the governor's mansion.
DeSantis leads Crist in most polls and has $72 million in cash on hand compared to Crist’s $3 million. And in a post-Trump Republican-dominated Tallahassee, where the GOP holds near supermajorities in the Legislature and three of four Cabinet seats, Crist and the Democrats largely have a hard time getting media attention for policy goals.
When Crist rolled out his "Affordable Florida for All" plan on the steps of the Old Capitol Thursday, hardly anyone noticed. It’s an economic proposal rooted in LBJ’s Great Society, and the 1960s Kerner Commission's investigation of civil unrest and social service programs.
“People are frustrated," Crist told reporters. "Nobody seems to have their back.” His plan, he explained, aims to cut the cost of living in Florida and includes consumer-focused insurance reform planks that echo his consumer advocacy as attorney general.
The criminal justice initiatives’ emphasizes prevention and rehabilitation, with a call to legalize and tax marijuana to fund social programs.
“I’ve done this before. People just want to know if you are sincere,” Crist said about trailing DeSantis in the polls and campaign money.
On Thursday, he sat for an interview with Capital Bureau reporter James Call and editor Jim Rosica in the USA TODAY Network-Florida's offices in downtown Tallahassee.
When Rosica teased this Q&A in a series of tweets last week, the Republican National Committee seized upon some of Crist's comments in an attack email.
It took him to task for his praise for President Biden, mentioning a "broken supply chain and empty shelves," and how Biden "has waged war on Florida by shutting down the state’s successful monoclonal program to fight COVID." Clearly, someone's paying attention now.
The questions and answers that follow were edited for clarity and brevity:
Q: The issue that is foremost on a lot of people’s minds is the COVID pandemic. What is your critique of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ policies to contain the virus?
Crist: I think it's been a disaster, a horrific disaster in that we've lost now over 64,000 Floridians to this pandemic during his leadership, or lack thereof, in my opinion. He doesn't advocate for vaccines. He doesn't advocate for wearing masks.
I know he's a bright fellow, intellectually. I mean, he went to Harvard and Yale. And so you have to think that there is cognitive thought in his brain that vaccines are actually good.
Yet he continues to appeal to a certain base for a certain reason, which is 2024, to not advocate for vaccines or even admit that boosters can be helpful. And that's why I know we need better leadership. You know, it needs to be honest. And not political. And we're not getting honest.
Q: How would a Crist administration handle this differently?
Crist: I would be advocating vaccines every day and wearing a mask indoors. And I wouldn't be signing executive orders that essentially say kids can't wear a mask at school.
DeSantis is out politicizing these things (that) have real-life consequences for our fellow Floridians. And his leadership is misleading. And it's wrong. And I think he knows it. Maybe he doesn't. I don't know. But we deserve better than this.
Q: Staying with an honesty theme, the governor has also questioned Democrats’ honesty, saying promises, such as you have made, to expand Medicaid or ban assault weapons is dishonest since the decision rests with the Legislature and not the governor.
Crist: It's not dishonest to say you're going to try. You are going to fight for them. This is a distinction that people need to know before they vote.
He won’t do that. You've got a candidate, if I happen to be the nominee, who will fight for legalizing marijuana, who will fight for a woman's right to choose, who will fight for Medicaid expansion.
He won't do any of it. He won't even fight for it.
Q: On the agenda this session is an effort to make it more difficult for labor unions to be certified, an attempt to prohibit local living wage ordinances, and a plan to possibly withdraw from OSHA. How does a Charlie Crist administration fight back?
Crist: They can have somebody in the governor's office who will fight for workers and it's me ... You have empathy and compassion and respect, and you respect that their compensation needs to be improved, just like it does for our teachers, in my opinion. You know, they have to have a decent workplace.
You use the bully pulpit of the office. Use the (threat of the) veto pen to negotiate. I mean, there are weapons at your disposal that you can utilize as a governor. That can be game-changing, but you have to have the will to do it.
I have the will to do it. I've done it before.
Q: The governor is sending out fundraising letters tying the Democratic candidates to President Joe Biden. They call his administration one disaster after another, citing inflation, a crisis at the southern border, COVID. Is the President a liability for Florida Democrats?
Crist: I'm very encouraged by the Biden administration. I thank God he got elected. I shudder to think what where we would be right now if he hadn't been.
I think this presidency will end up going down in history as one of the best we've ever had. If for nothing else, the contrast from the prior administration. That he brought back decency to governing, that he doesn't tweet in the middle of the night (and) make fun of disabled people.
I think that what he's trying to do is going to break through. Just look at infrastructure alone. I mean, my God, we haven't made that kind of progress on an infrastructure bill since Eisenhower. And I'm sure it far exceeded anything that Eisenhower was able to spend. He's done extraordinary things.
James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahassee
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