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Wednesday, April 04, 2007




(TALLAHASSEE, FL)(April 4, 2007, 2007) I encountered Florida Governor Charlie Crist during his first race for the state senate in 1992. Shortly thereafter Crist went to Tallahassee and became "Chain Gang Charlie." This week he is on the brink of becoming "Ballot Box Charlie" as he seeks to restore voting rights to felons—and counters opposition from more conservative elements of the Republican Party.

The journey from crime-baiting conservative to mild-mannered reformer is a long one. How did Crist travel the distance? To tell the truth, I'm not sure.

In 1998 Crist and I ran against each other for the U. S. Senate nomination. Across the state the election was a pretty close race; I carried Miami-Dade County in a landslide. But Crist clobbered me in the Tampa Bay TV market where his colorful antics as a local senator had made him famous. Although I have never met Charlie I have studied him closely over the years.

I'm still not sure how he made the journey.

The State of Florida is beginning to change, and in ways that do not necessarily favor Republicans. For the first time in history, low wages and high taxes are forcing people to leave.

Nationally, the Democrats feel they are in ascendancy, although I would not bank on that fact in 2008. In Florida, Democrats ran a close race against Crist, and gained strength in the legislature for the first time in a decade.

The 2006 Republican gubernatorial primary was a bender. Tom Gallagher, who had begun in politics as a moderate, ran as an extreme conservative. Crist, who had begun as a conservative, ran as a moderate. The moderate won.

Since walking into the Governor's office Crist has governed more as a conservative Democrat, in the Lawton Chiles style, than as a right-wing Republican. His political antennae are sensitive. One of his first pieces of legislation was an "Anti-Murder Act," giving rise to the quere, who would be "pro-murder?" The Anti-Murder Act passed.

Republicans generally oppose restoring voting rights to felons. They fear that criminals vote Democratic. Given the recent scandals in Washington that is not necessarily true. But it is probably true that those felons who would vote in Florida would support more Democrats than Republicans. Unless, perhaps, a Republican governor gave them the vote.

Whether Crist will be able to actually get the votes he needs in the Florida Cabinet to restore voting rights is still an open question. Florida state government is controlled by a Reconstruction-era "cabinet" system, run by a weak governor who must seek support from other elected officials for major state policies.

The best place to look for answers to Crist's transition is his own Cypriot-Greek community. Cypriots are islanders. They are cautious and conservative by nature. Crist grew up in an immigrant household; where natural conservatism was reinforced by the fact both his grandfather and father were Republicans. That was quite unusual in the Greek community. Having grown up in the Greek-American community myself I can attest how focused immigrants were on education and obedience to authority. Crist came out of such a family structure.

But middle age does strange things to all of us and it may have changed Crist. While retaining pride in his heritage Crist has slowly, perhaps for purposes of his conservative base almost inexorably, moved from an immigrant-based command attitude towards society to a more open and accepting approach to differing views and lifestyles. Crist's changes have served him well; he ended up in the governor's mansion. They may serve him well as he tries to move the Republican Party of Florida away from very conservative attitudes to a moderate and even progressive role in society.

He began in politics rattling chains. And he's still ratting chains. Only this time he's trying to empower offenders rather than imprison them. He's cutting the chains that bind them, instead of seeking to lock them away. Maybe he's cutting his own chains as well. We'll have to wait and see.

Charlie Crist's journey continues.

Chicago-based Internet journalist, broadcaster and critic Andy Martin is the Executive Editor and publisher of © Copyright Andy Martin 2007. Martin covers regional, national and international politics with forty years of personal experience. Columns also posted at; Comments? E-mail: Media contact: (866) 706-2639.


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