Inside Report: Charlie Crist comes around to Louisiana

by mark ballard

mballard@theadvocate.com

Mark Ballard.
Mark Ballard.

Louisiana Democrats on Saturday are welcoming a former Florida governor who only a few years ago called himself a “kindred spirit” with Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal.

But that was back in 2008 when Charlie Crist, then a Republican, shared the same guest house with Jindal on the estate of U.S. Sen. John McCain when the GOP presidential nominee was vetting running mates.

Crist says they talked football, politics and everything except who would be vice president. He hosted a fundraiser for Jindal at the home of a friend in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Back then Crist advocated using public dollars to pay tuition in private schools; a constitutional amendment allowing prayer in public schools; the Defense of Marriage Act, which effectively bars official recognition of same-sex marriage; allowing people to carry concealed guns; discontinuing affirmative action programs and other GOP touchstones.

“Things have changed. I used to be a kindred spirit with the Republican Party and the party regrettably has kind of gone off the right cliff,” Crist said. “The only way that the Republicans can survive a primary is to go as hard right as you possibly can and you have to pass all these purity tests and litmus tests on one issue after another.”

Crist says the Democratic Party, which he joined in December, is more accomodating to his points of view. He made the rounds with Louisiana media this week in preparation for his keynote address Saturday at the state Democratic Party’s chief fundraising event, Louisiana’s 2013 Jefferson-Jackson Dinner.

He had nothing to say about a possible run for Florida governor as a Democrat, though McCain told the Tampa Bay Times a couple weeks ago, “Everything I hear from my friends in Florida is he’s going to be very competitive.”

On Wednesday, Florida political columnists questioned whether Crist’s new found criticism of purging voter registration rolls, which apparently he sanctioned as a GOP governor from 2007 to 2011, is related to a possible gubernatorial run next year.

Asked if he still supports a constitutional amendment allowing prayer in the public schools, Crist answered: “I’m pretty much where I always have been and what my deeds reflect and the actions that I took, I now just have a letter behind my name that’s more apropos to all of that.”

As a state senator in the early 1990s, Crist co-sponsored legislation to implement charter schools. On school vouchers, which most Louisiana Democrats and teachers oppose, Crist said his support now all depends on how vouchers are implemented.

“You have to have plenty of options for parents, but it really begins with making sure you are strengthening the public education system because not everybody can afford alternatives,” said Crist, who was Florida education commissioner from 2000 to 2003.

Crist was more succinct in opposing a system that relies too much on the use of student grades when evaluating the effectiveness, job security and pay of public school teachers.

And Crist says he had something of an epiphany regarding his one-time support of Florida’s Defense of Marriage Act, which he says is primarily an anti-gay statute.

When Crist ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2010 as a candidate without party affiliation, he “strongly supported” policies “that strengthen Florida families.” Now, Crist says Florida and Louisiana should repeal their respective Defense of Marriage laws, which describe marriage in heterosexual terms, he said.

“What we’ve seen, particularly in gay rights, has been nothing short than inspiring particularly in recent years,” Crist said. “This is an evolving debate. People are coming around to the conclusion … Along with the country, I’ve had that same journey.”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com