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Crist: Florida could change polarized politics by voting for him

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 06:59 PM

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TAMPA -

Gov. Charlie Crist said Florida could start a trend toward less polarized, less partisan national politics by electing him, a no-party candidate, to the U.S. Senate.

Florida could be "a living, breathing example" to the rest of the country that, "We're all fed up with the gridlock in Washington, so much so that we've sent an independent voice" to the Senate, Crist said.

"I think we're a microcosm of the country. What happens in Florida now happens in America tomorrow," the Republican turned no-party candidate
said in a Tribune editorial board interview Tuesday. "And I believe that if this is a successful mission here, we change everything."

Crist, who has previously declined to say which party's caucus he would join in the senate, went further Tuesday - he said he might not join either caucus.

He denied that that would limit his effectiveness by preventing him from getting committee assignments.

Political experts, however, weren't so optimistic about Crist's chances of starting a non-partisan political trend or exerting influence in the Senate outside the party structure.

Crist's idea is "interesting but unrealistic," said Norman Ornstein, a veteran congressional analyst and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-oriented Washington think tank.

"The fact is that 80 percent of the work, or more, of the Senate is done in committees."

The Democratic and Republican caucuses in the Senate vote on leadership - whichever is larger elects the majority leader -- and dispense committee assignments.

Each party receives a set number of committee seats, and the majority party gets more, plus more staff members, thus giving it control, though not absolute, over legislation and procedures.

The Senate, however, seeks to be a more deliberative body than the U.S. House, working by consensus, which gives individual senators more power than individual House members. A single senator can block legislation that isn't backed by a 60-vote majority.

Being an unaffiliated senator "can be a big deal if you're energetic, if you have passion, if you work hard every day," Crist said. "You can file legislation, you can put a hold on a nominee, you can filibuster ... and you can be very effective in communicating."

"George Washington said if we allow the political parties to gain too much power we may end up, in essence, crippling the country we just created," Crist said. "We're there."

Crist cited the late Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon, a fiery iconoclast who switched from Republican to independent to Democrat while in the Senate in the 1950's.

At one point, Crist noted, Morse put a chair in the aisle between the two parties.

But Larry Sabato, University of Virginia political analyst, said Morse "quickly realized that without committees and a caucus home, he was much less successful.

"There are a lot of Americans who are fed up with both major parties, and believe that centrists are underrepresented in both," said Sabato. "But Democrats and Republicans have enormous advantages under the law, and the election of one independent senator in Florida is not going to rock the political world nor change the rules of the game."

The work of building Senate legislation is mostly done in committee, said Ornstein.

Committees also influence the executive branch. "Getting an agency to consider altering its priorities, getting the administration to change its policies, all the oversight is done by committees," he said.

Crist could also be sealed off from the conference committees that hammer out differences in House and Senate bills.

Ornstein said Crist could trade his position as a swing Senate vote to bargain with the parties - "to get his bills brought up, to get something for Florida."

"It wouldn't make him powerless, but it would sharply curtail his opportunities," he said.

Crist said the best-known non-major party senator, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, advised him not to declare during the campaign which party he would caucus with.

"He felt you could maintain your ability to negotiate on behalf of your state in a more effective way if you haven't already done that," Crist said.

But both Lieberman and the only other independent senator, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, caucus as Democrats.

Experts also questioned how much Crist's election would affect the widely bemoaned partisan polarization in Washington.

Polarization became problematic in the 1970s and has been increasing since, said Keith Poole, a University of Georgia political scientist who has studied and written about it.

"It isn't likely to be reversed overnight," he said, except by a major change in elections systems, in which voters of both parties would vote on all primary candidates,

"If Crist won - against everybody's expectation -- it clearly would have a big impact," but wouldn't break up the logjam, he said.

It would encourage political figures who lose in primaries to run as independents, but to have a chance of getting elected, he said, they'd have to have established political reputations already, as Lieberman did and Crist does.


Reporter William March can be reached at (813) 259-7761.

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