Crist conveys strength, influence
Published: Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 12:02 a.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Charlie Crist solidified his hold on power Tuesday, quashing any doubts about his popularity and his clout.
Crist singlehandedly pushed a sweeping property tax cut over the steep 60 percent threshold, and 40 percent of voters cited his endorsement of winning Republican presidential candidate John McCain as a factor in their vote.
While the traditional honeymoon of his first year in office is over, Tuesday's results may have forced lawmakers and lobbyists to pay homage to Crist in issues big and small.
"Anybody today who thinks they can take this guy on, they're out of their minds. They've got a suicide mission,'' said Ron Book, one of the state's top lobbyists. "The guy has unbelievable strength right now.''
Lawmakers, particularly conservative House Republicans, have bristled under Crist's populist tack toward the political middle.
But with Tuesday's victories bolstered by polls showing his approval rating at a staggering 70-plus percent, it seems likely that the Legislature will continue to follow Crist's lead.
"There's just a bandwagon effect. People like to run with a winner and run away from a loser,'' said Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota.
He noted that some Republicans had presumed Crist's approval ratings would sink by now.
"You start to think maybe the air is letting out of the balloon. Well, guess what, the balloon is back full again,'' Fitzgerald said of Crist's popularity with voters. "It's just very hard (for lawmakers) to cross a winner.''
Crist declined to speculate on whether his political fortunes would help him woo lawmakers in troubling fiscal times.
He said that his support for Amendment 1 - a plan that increases the homestead exemption and lets residents keep Save Our Homes tax breaks if they move - was a reflection of Floridians' desires.
"I think the people of Florida are focused on what they want and it's right to spend a lot of time listening to them,'' Crist said. "The more I do that, the smarter I get. They educate me every day and I'm a very willing student.''
Crist's "Yes on 1'' campaign raised about $4 million with half of that coming from just two groups - the Florida Association of Realtors and Florida Power & Light.
It's a small amount to fund a statewide campaign from scratch.
But Crist's political machine and his unparalleled knack for "earned media'' - free media coverage from TV and print - were the difference.
Crist took a number of days off from the governor's office to barnstorm the state with TV crews at every stop.
During slow times in Tallahassee, Crist averages about 50 or 60 appearances on TV statewide per day.
Last weekend, he appeared hundreds of times each day on local and national channels as he mixed his campaigning for McCain and Amendment 1.
The "Yes On 1'' campaign was run by Arlene DeBenigno who took a leave from her job as Crist's deputy chief of staff.
She said the amendment's passage was testament to the governor's tireless campaigning and the revival of the "Crist machine,'' an army of volunteers and local party officials that went door-to-door and made phone calls for weeks.
"It's his style, he wants to talk to real people,'' DeBenigno said. "It also shows he's got this incredible family, his campaign team who can get out there.''
In hindsight, Amendment 1's success was clear Saturday when Crist endorsed McCain - a sign that the governor felt the tax plan would win and that his political capital could be spent elsewhere.
The move shifted the Crist team's focus to McCain, with hundreds of volunteers joining the effort and Crist dashing off automated phone calls in support.
Criticism of Crist has come from conservatives upset by his lack of passion for social issues like abortion and gay marriage, as well as his support for things like global warming reduction and a deeper role for state government in property insurance.
But Crist has a lock on other conservative blocs such as proponents of gun owners' rights.
Bill Bunting, the chairman of the Pasco County Republican Party and one of the state's most ardent advocates of gun rights, jokes that Crist is "to the right of Attila the Hun.''
But Bunting made his first campaign donation in the 1990s to then-state Sen. Crist, a $50 check he delivered in the rain in St. Petersburg.
"He's like a rock star,'' Bunting said of Crist's support at gun shows. "He's accessible, he'll listen to you and he'll understand what you're saying.
"I pushed for the tax amendment to pass,'' Bunting said. "But I thought it would go down. That's impressive when a governor can do that.''
Crist also shows little interest in knowing the details of policy and government, sticking to simple, optimistic answers.
But Fitzgerald said voters seem to like that Ronald Reagan approach, despite the nit-picking from seasoned politicians.
"People all the time, insiders, will say he doesn't understand the details of this stuff or he believes in his own opinion in ways that don't reflect on his intellectual ability,'' Fitzgerald said. "But the guy just keeps knocking the ball out of the park.''
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