It’s still unknown how well Charlie Crist’s newly minted Democratic ideals will withstand the intense scrutiny and pressure of a gubernatorial campaign.
What is clear is that to succeed at another tilt at the governor’s mansion, the once- Republican governor will need to convince Democrats that his jump across the political aisle is about more than political ambition.
That may be why Crist this week is lending his name-recognition and political pull to Democratic candidates running for office.
On Tuesday, Crist was the special guest at a fundraiser for St. Petersburg City Council District 4 candidate Darden Rice, a progressive local activist. He is also scheduled to appear at a fundraiser today in Tampa for Florida Second Congressional District candidate Gwen Graham, the daughter of former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.
Reaction among Democrats to Crist’s defection has varied, with some skeptical that Crist is a genuine Democrat, said Darryl Paulson, a political science professor at University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. Crist’s appearance at fundraisers will go some way to earning support, he said.
“The best way to describe it is there is a lot of mixed reaction to whether he’s a real Democrat or a Democrat of convenience,” Paulson said. “A lot of people on both sides of the political aisle have that question.”
But doubting Democrats could be reassured simply because Crist offers the party the best chance of regaining the governor’s mansion for the first time since 1999, said Jim Jackson, a member of the Pinellas Democratic Party.
“He brings some baggage – it’s called party jumping,” Jackson said. “But if someone like Charlie Crist would come here for a city council race, that says a lot. He’s got my vote.”
Crist was elected Florida’s 44th governor after he defeated Democrat Jim Davis in 2006. He declined to run for a second term and instead ran for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Mel Martinez. With polls showing him trailing in the Republican primary, he eventually opted to run as an independent, losing to Marco Rubio.
Crist said his record while in office showed his views often dovetailed more with Democrats than the Republican-controlled Legislature. As attorney general, he was praised by civil rights groups for taking on utility companies. He used his veto power as governor to scuttle GOP-backed bills that would have ended tenure for K-12 teachers and required women who wanted an abortion to undergo an ultrasound.
“I feel so much more comfortable as a Democrat,” he said.
Crist said convincing Democratic voters to support him is no different than engaging any voter and that his appearances this week are not a matter of paying his Democratic dues.
“Some may see it that way,” he said. “I’m just helping my friends.”
City council races are non partisan, but Rice, who has also volunteered with the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters, is well known as a Democrat.
Crist’s appearance is the result of a long friendship that started when Rice was a student at the USF Tampa campus. Concerned about offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, she called Crist to ask him to vote against it. The pair have remained friends since.
“I think that is where his heart is,” Rice said of Crist’s defection to the Democratic Party.
Democratic State representatives Darryl Rouson and Dwight Dudley, who also attended the fundraiser at Cassis American Brasserie on Tuesday evening, both expressed support for Crist’s move across the political aisle.
Dudley, who went to school with Crist at St. Petersburg High School, said Crist has the personality and communications skills to overcome voters’ misgivings.
That may be harder to achieve with former supporters unhappy with his new affiliation.
Chet Renfro, treasurer of the Republican Party of Pinellas County, once served as campaign chairman for Crist in Pinellas County. He said the former governor’s name is seldom mentioned anymore by party supporters.
“Once Charlie got elected as governor, he forgot Pinellas County,” Renfro said. “He never came around at all.”