Independent – FL Gov. Charlie Crist

Florida governor talks about the impact of the Gulf Coast oil spill on his state, the Tea Party and his bid for the U.S. Senate as an independent candidate.

After serving in several Florida state posts, which included becoming the first elected Republican attorney general, Charlie Crist was inaugurated as the Sunshine State's governor in '07. He began his government service as state director for a U.S. Senator. He also practiced law and was general counsel to Minor League Baseball. Crist grew up in St. Petersburg and is a lifelong member of the city's NAACP chapter. Instead of running for re-election, he's opted to make a bid for a seat in the U.S. Senate this year, as an independent "no party" candidate.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Charlie Crist is serving his first term as governor of the Sunshine State and is now seeking the Senate seat formerly held by Mel Martinez. Once a Republican, he is now running this race as an independent. He joins us tonight from where else – Miami. Governor Crist, good to have you on the program, sir.
Gov. Charlie Crist: Tavis, as always, it’s an honor to be with you. Hope you’re doing well.
Tavis: I am delighted to talk to you and I am doing extremely well, and you’re doing pretty well these days, too. The latest polls and surveys I’ve seen suggest that you have pulled – some polls it’s dead even, other polls you’re slightly ahead. That wasn’t the case just a few weeks ago.
Crist: No, that’s right, that’s right. Things are very good here in Florida, and I think frankly it’s because people want an independent voice in the U.S. Senate. I think they’re frustrated with the gridlock and the arguing that they see between the two parties in Washington on any given day, and I think this is a refreshing change, a different approach, and example what the people of Florida, frankly I think the people of America, want.
Tavis: What’s happened, though, over the last weeks that’s allowed you to pull even or to pull ahead in certain polls? What’s happened?
Crist: Well, I think what’s happened is just the realization that the Republican Party or the Democratic Party just don’t get things done in Washington anymore. It’s been very difficult on any given issue – immigration reform, whatever you want to deal with, trying to figure out what to do on taxes.
It’s hard for them to come to any kind of accord in a civil way at all in order to accomplish something for the people first, and I think the reality is that people understand that, they appreciate that a different way, that you’re doing something independent rather than thinking, well, what do the Republicans expect me to do, or on the other hand, what do the Democrats expect me to do?
How about what do the people want me to do and need me to do for their best interests, and think of them first? I think that’s what’s taking hold here in Florida.
Tavis: I hear that argument loud and clear, Governor. As you know, though, that’s not a new argument. Is there anything before I move on you can point to specifically in the race in Florida that has happened or not happened, as it were, that caused these numbers to shift?
Because the point you’re making now is legitimate and it’s real, but can you connect it specifically to your race in Florida, something that happened that allowed you to connect differently with the voters and move ahead in these polls?
Crist: Well, I think there’s a couple of things. I think as it relates to the education issue, for example, in Florida, during the session that we had that concluded not that long ago, there was a bill going through that originally started out as a pretty good reform bill.
I think as the process continued to go and the issue continued to evolve, it became something that was much more punitive as it related to teachers than originally envisioned by anybody, and let me give an example of what I mean by that and I’ll get to the point of how it affects maybe polling.
It said that if a public school teacher got a master’s degree, there would be no additional compensation or recognition, or even if they got a Ph.D., their doctorate, or even if they were nationally board certified.
But really, for me, as somebody who would either have to sign the bill or veto it, the straw that broke the camel’s back for me, Tavis, really dealt with special needs teachers. And it said that in this legislation that regardless of whether a teacher was teaching special needs children, the way they would be evaluated for their compensation would be the same as any other teacher.
Well, that was really, as I said, the straw that broke the camel’s back, why I decided to veto the bill, and I think it really resonated with people across the state of Florida that if you’re an Independent and you just strive to do what you believe is right in your heart for the people of your state, whether they be teachers or the children or their future, that’s something that really hits a nerve with people, and I think that’s what started and is continuing here in Florida.
Tavis: To your point about Democrats and Republicans fighting in Washington, President Obama happens to be in Miami today where you are tonight. I would just call it “the hug.” Did you ever imagine that an embrace, a hug of a president, would come back to haunt you the way that it did?
Crist: No, not in a million years, and I’ll tell you why. The way I was raised with my three sisters and my family was to respect others, and to have that kind of mutual respect that everybody deserves, let alone the president of the United States of America. And so when the hug, if you want to call it that, occurred, it’s when the president came to Fort Myers about, oh, I don’t know, not long after he had been sworn in, maybe a month at the most.
When he came there, he was coming there to talk about the Economic Recovery Act, the stimulus act, and it was the first time he’s coming to Florida after becoming president of the United States. So as governor I felt a duty and an obligation on behalf of my fellow Floridians, all of them, Republicans, Democrats and Independents, to be respectful to the president of the United States.
So I greeted him, and it was surprising to me, to be honest with you, that some took issue with that or thought that was inappropriate or wrong. It was just how I was raised and taught to do unto others and be respectful and be civil.
But what once was maybe a deterrent has now I think become an advantage, being associated with the president and many of the Democrats throughout the state of Florida. I was just thanked again today at an event here in south Florida – thank you for respecting the president and thank you for being decent to him.
Tavis: You said a few things now I want to unpack here in just a second. Let me start with the issue of Obama personally. There are, as you know, a number of candidates around the country, Democrats, in fact, who don’t want to stand too close to this president, they don’t want to campaign with him, they don’t want to be anywhere around when he shows up, and that tends to happen when you’re in trouble, of course, headed to a midterm elections cycle.
What’s your sense of whether or not the president would be radioactive for you in Florida?
Crist: Oh, I don’t think so. I don’t feel that way at all. I think that numbers ebb and flow, we all know that. One said up and then is another date not as good, and then it goes back and forth. But I think what people appreciate is somebody trying to get the job done, and I think the man is sincere, I think he’s genuine. I think he’s trying, and I think people see that.
Now is the economy good? No, it’s not, and whenever you have an economic situation like that, when you’re the leader it’s difficult to keep your numbers high. It’s almost analogous to being a quarterback. Many times when you win the game in football, the quarterback probably gets too much credit.
Or conversely, when you loose, the quarterback, or in this case, the president, maybe gets too much of the blame. I think it’s the same what’s happening here in Florida as it relates to the president and I don’t think he’s radioactive.
Tavis: Now that you’re an Independent, Governor Crist, Where is most of your support coming from, Republicans or Democrats?
Crist: It’s coming from both. It really is, Tavis, and I’m very pleased by that, I’ve got to tell you. I will confess this – I think it’s become a lot more comfortable or a lot easier, if you will, for Democrats to be more supportive than they were, say, when I was registered as a Republican. I don’t think there’s any question about that.
So a lot of the support has come from a lot of friends of mine who happen to be Democrats, and I’m honored to have them.
Tavis: You’ve been around this game long enough to know that it is possible in the world of politics to peak too soon. Is Charlie Crist peaking too soon in this race?
Crist: Oh, I don’t think so at all. I don’t have a primary and here in Florida, our primary for governor, for the U.S. Senate and other races, is next Tuesday. So there’s a lot of focus. It really is on the primaries in Florida, for the most part on the Republican side in the governor’s race and on the Democratic side in the Senate race.
So that being said, I think that that’s where the focus is. There’s not, frankly, a whole lot of focus on my candidacy. I’m continuing to serve as governor and that keeps me pretty darn busy, I can assure you.
So peaking early? Not at all. I really think the focus will shift. Once we finish our primary we get into the traditional kick-off of the general election, which is, of course, Labor Day weekend. Then I think things will really start to move, and I look forward to it.
Tavis: You and I have know each other for a little while, so because I know you as well as I do, which isn’t to say as well as someone else might know you, but as well as I know you I suspect I’m about to ask a question now that you’re probably not going to answer, but I’m going to ask it anyway, just to see if I can talk you (laughs) -
Crist: Okay. (Laughs)
Tavis: Just to see if I can -
Crist: Give it a shot.
Tavis: Yeah, might as well give it the old college try.
Crist: That’s right, that’s right.
Tavis: What’s your sense, then, speaking of the primaries, of what’s going to happen on Primary Day, and what would you like to happen? Who would you like to see come out on top in those races?
Crist: Well you’re right, I really haven’t tried to sort of dissect it, if you will, and determine which candidate would be better in the race going forward into the fall. I learned a long time ago that you ought to focus on things you can control and try not to waste too much energy on things that you can’t, and I can’t control the outcome of that primary.
So I’m just focusing my efforts on number one, as I said earlier, trying to be the best governor I can for the people of the state I love, my Florida, and then secondly, when we get into the fall campaign September/October, trying to present a good, clear, coherent, common sense message that I think people will respond to and truly reflect what they want in a United States senator.
Tavis: Speaking, Governor Crist, of the state that you love, we all know, of course, the impact that the oil spill had and might still be having to some degree on your state of Florida, the Sunshine State. We know that President Obama is in the state again, encouraging folk to take their vacations down there. He and his family, of course, recently on vacation there. You all saw the photos of him and Sasha playing in the water. Your sense of what his visit did to put this issue front and center about tourism in your state?
Crist: Oh, it was huge, and let me express again publicly my gratitude for the president and the first lady and their daughter coming to Florida when they did this past weekend. There’s no greater single commercial or utilization of the bully pulpit than when the president of the United States comes in. So when he comes to the state, he goes in the water, he shows to not only the whole country, to the world, that Florida’s clean, we’re ready and open for business.
Our restaurants are great, our hotels are great, the beach is clean, the water’s pristine and the fish are biting. So we’re very, very grateful for his and the first family coming to Florida really to get that message across like nobody else on the planet has the ability and the opportunity to do.
So it was huge, Tavis, to Florida and our economy. We are such a tourist-driven economy here in the Sunshine State. Eighty-five million people a year come to Florida to visit us. That provides jobs, jobs, jobs, which are so vitally important right now.
Tavis: At this point, what is the impact of the oil spill on your state? Is it diminishing or is it still something that Floridians need to be concerned about?
Crist: Well, we need to be concerned about it more from an economic point of view, we hope, rather than the environmental point of view originally, although wildlife will continue to be affected. There are different battle of the experts, if you will, as to how much oil is left in the Gulf of Mexico.
One report from the government said that a lot of it’s pretty much gone in terms of being dissipated or evaporated or what have you, but then we get other reports from some of the universities that say that there may be more of it still in the Gulf of Mexico below the surface so we continue to have to monitor that.
What we’re very grateful for is the fact that very little hit our shores. Just a little bit in Pensacola Beach, to be candid with you, but none in the rest of the state – didn’t touch our beaches, didn’t affect the hotels, their restaurants.
What we do suffer from still a little bit, and that’s why it was so important the president came here, is the perception that there was more oil here. There really wasn’t. We were very, very fortunate – blessed, I would say – and we continue to want to get the message out – people, please come down to Florida. It’s a beautiful state, the beaches are clean and the weather’s perfect.
Tavis: You used a word a moment ago, Governor, that I want to pick up on now and move in a different direction with it – the word “perception.” Obviously, you know that perception across this country is that certain Republicans, members of your own old party, forced you, compelled you, to have to make a decision to leave the party to become an Independent.
I don’t want to color it much more than that, but walk me through your process for having made that decision and whether or not in fact you felt compelled, forced, coerced into making that decision because of the way that you were maltreated.
Crist: Yeah, well, in some ways, yes, but I’m not a guy who really reflects and blames others for things. I really have been asked the question in several ways, and one is did I leave the party or did the party leave me?
I think the party left me. I was proud to be a member of the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, for example, or Ronald Reagan or Teddy Roosevelt. Lincoln, of course, the Great Emancipator, and the man who said in his second inaugural address, “With malice toward none and with charity for all.”
That kind of compassionate conservatism always appealed to me, and a level of civility that I think is very important and again, consistent with the way that I was raised by my mother and father. When it got to the point where the party said, “Well, you’re not conservative enough,” and then took it a step further and said, “Well, maybe you’re not pure enough.”
I’m like, what? Wait, this is not something I recognize or necessarily want to embrace. I want to be careful here, because I don’t think that’s where all Republicans are. I think that’s more where some activists in the party are, and I think that most Republicans, particularly most general election Republicans as opposed to primary election Republicans, take that more civil view, as do most Democrats, as do most independents in this country.
So I think it was an evolution. The issue we discussed earlier on education and sort of being more punitive toward school teachers was something that drove me in that direction as well. It just feels a lot more comfortable, frankly, being an Independent and just speaking your mind and being straightforward and being more concerned about the people first instead of the party first.
I know that’s what the people of this country want. They’re tired of that kind of gridlock and trying to think of well, what am I supposed to do because I’m a Republican? What am I supposed to do because I’m a Democrat? How about what you should do because you’re a public servant for the people?
Tavis: Let me ask you a question, Governor, based on what you just said, from my perspective. This is not at all about casting aspersion on Republicans. But when you suggest that you think that most general election Republicans are still civil in how they interact and civil, for that matter, in how they think and how they process, if I had the time – I don’t – I could argue down on that point with all kinds of evidence that suggests that we are becoming more uncivil in our politics, and a lot of that, certainly not all of it, is coming from the right, and you happen to be a victim of that.
Crist: Yeah. Well, there’s a lot of truth to that, and when you watch cable TV and you hear certain arguments that are made and a lot of bickering – you have a great show and you have an opportunity to really reflect and have some thoughtful commentary, and it’s very refreshing to people and I think it’s what drives viewers to you.
I think that if we had more of that kind of discussion, that it would be a healthier thing for not only politics but for the country as a whole. When I sit there and I see some cable TV shows and these people argue, who can scream over the other person the most effectively.
I have to also think in my heart not only are people in our country watching that, and frankly, I think disappointed by it, but people around the world. The world is watching, and there’s an old expression – “United we stand, divided we fall.” I think that’s true. I think that we need to come together; we need to be more united. We have to have a more civil tone to get things done for the future of our country and the well-being of our people.
Tavis: When all is said and done – and I don’t know when that’s going to be – but when all is said and done, what’s the net impact, the net result of the Tea Party going to be on the Republican Party as you see it?
Crist: That’s a great question, and I don’t know is the honest answer. I think it’s hard to project forward, at least in terms of the election this year, and see what it’s going to mean.
I will say this – I think that it’s important and productive to have as much participation in democracy as possible, whatever the group might be. Obviously I prefer that any group would put their views forward in a way that is of a civil tone, that is respectful and that respects others’ points of view.
I think that the more participation we have, the more views can be brought to bear and you have greater participation at the ballot box, which we’re so blessed in this country to have the opportunity to choose our own leaders. As we know, not every country has that blessing. I would just encourage your viewers, which I’m sure most of them do – get out and vote.
Exercise that incredibly precious right that we have to determine our own destiny and our own future by who we pick to be our public servants.
Tavis: Speaking of who we pick to be our public servants, I wonder whether or not you think that if the partisanship continues, if the bickering continues, if the incivility continues to rise, whether or not people are going to get sick and tired of our broken, two-party system, and whether we might see down the road, Governor, more people of your stature, in fact, becoming Independents in the future?
Crist: Oh, I think we will see it, I really do. I think that what happens here in Florida in this Senate race – Florida really is a microcosm of the country, and if I have the opportunity and the honor, frankly, to win this seat, I think that sends a message to America about the frustration people in a state like mine – we’re the fourth largest state in the country. We have almost 20 million people in Florida. We’re probably the most diverse state in the county.
If this happens here – and people say a lot of time, what happens in Florida happens in America later. Well, that may be. There’s only one way to find out. It’s going to be interesting to follow and it’s very kind of you to take the time with me this evening to share.
Tavis: Finally, here – it’s my pleasure to do it, as you well know – finally, here, can you give me a sense of – map out for me strategically where you go from here to Election Day where your campaign is concerned.
Crist: Well, just work hard, continue to try to get the message out about common sense leadership, about trying to have an independent voice in the United States Senate for my Florida that will first and foremost be concerned about what’s right for the people, and try to do what’s right for them each and every day to make Florida a better place to live, to improve our quality of life, our education, our public safety, keep taxes low, respect others and simply try to do what’s right every single day in order to have good leadership for not only Florida but also for America.
Tavis: He’s the governor of Florida, the Sunshine State, Charlie Crist. Formerly a Republican, now running as an independent for the Senate seat in Florida, perhaps the most closely watched Senate race in the entire country. Governor, we’ll be watching. Always good to have you on the program and thank you for your time, sir.
Crist: Great to be with you, Tavis. Take care.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm