ST. PETERSBURG — Completing a weekend that kicked off the governor’s race in the crucial Tampa Bay area, former Gov. Charlie Crist roused a crowd of Democrats on his home turf in Pinellas County Saturday by telling them Gov. Rick Scott is “a fraud.”
“He’s going to say anything, do anything to try to get back there, to try to wipe his past away,” Crist said. “I’m running against a $100 million war machine.”
But, he said, “In this election, the truth is coming — and it’s you.”
Crist spoke to the premier annual fundraising event of the Democratic Party of Pinellas County, his home turf, as friendly a crowd as he’ll see on the campaign trail.
The appearance followed one by Scott at a Hillsborough County Republican Party dinner Friday, as the two begin a battle for what may be the most crucial political area in the coming election, the Tampa Bay area, a swing-voting swath of Central Florida that’s also the state’s largest media market.
But while Scott has been coming to Tampa on a more-than-weekly basis, Crist has been concentrating on South Florida, where he needs a big turnout from the state’s largest cache of Democrats, making comparatively few appearances here.
Opening his speech, Crist told the crowd, “I’m going to litigate Rick Scott.”
He began with what apparently will be a staple of his campaign, the Medicare fraud investigation of the hospital chain Scott headed in the 1990s, Columbia/HCA, which led to a $1.7 billion fine, the nation’s largest to that date.
“It’s despicable. It’s a health care company,” he said. “They’re supposed to care about sick people. You know what they cared about under his leadership? Money.”
That investigation was a major issue in the 2010 campaign, which Scott won. Asked how he expects to succeed with it this time, Crist told reporters, “I’m going to talk about it more,” and said he knows “intelligent voters” who don’t know that Scott invoked Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination in testimony in the case.
He said despite Scott’s talk of tax cuts, the new budget will increase property taxes to pay for education — “Then he says it’s not happening. Remember the fraud thing? It’s kind of a pattern. It’s fraud. That’s what he does.”
He said Scott has compiled a “terrible” record on government ethics, voting rights, the environment and support for education.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, a Democrat, said it’s no accident that the two ballot-topping candidates at Saturday’s event — Crist and U.S. House candidate Ed Jany — both recently switched from the Republican Party to become Democrats.
“I think you’re starting to see a trend,” Kriseman said. “The more the Republican Party gets pulled to the right, the more you’ll see that.”
He compared the situation to the late 1980s, when the national Democratic Party swung far to the left, helping set off a flood of Democrats switching to Republican.
Jany, a Marine colonel retiring in June, said he switched political parties in October. Asked why, he said, “Two words: government shutdown.”
The congressional battle over the budget, he said, “affected my unit, my Marines, affected national security, affected everything.”
But Jany will be listed on the ballot as a no-party candidate because of a law passed last year by the Republican-controlled Legislature that many believe was aimed at Crist — it says a candidate must have been registered in a political party for at least a year to run for office representing that party.
Jany actually lives in Tampa, outside the 13th Congressional district in which he’s running, but said he’s “shopping for a place” in the southern Pinellas district.
He said he lives in Tampa because the Marine Corps moved him from Seattle to a post at MacDill Air Force base in 2009 and he needed access to the base and to Moffitt Cancer Center, where his wife wanted to have treatment for cancer. She is now recovered.
In a book and repeatedly on the campaign trail, Crist has said he switched because the GOP became too extreme.
He has said repeatedly that Republican dislike of President Obama is inspired at least partly by racism, and realizing that was one of the reasons he became disaffected from the party.
Republicans respond, charging opportunism; that Crist initially left the party when he was on the verge of losing to Marco Rubio in the 2010 Republican primary, enabling him to run as a no-party candidate. Crist became a Democrat in December 2012.
Responding to Crist’s appearance, Republican Party Chariman Lenny Curry charged that Crist “drove the state into a hole and then he bailed on the state of Florida” as governor. Scott “came along and started creating jobs, keeping tuition low, and cutting taxes for all Floridians.”
The dinner drew a crowd of about 380 at $125 per person, party officials said.