Management & Labor

Golden-Rule Charlie

It's hard to imagine an entertainer anywhere in America more despised by the Republican right than pop singer Sheryl Crow. She's a boisterous supporter of...
by | July 31, 2007
 

It's hard to imagine an entertainer anywhere in America more despised by the Republican right than pop singer Sheryl Crow. She's a boisterous supporter of abortion rights and other liberal causes, wants to ration toilet paper for environmental reasons, and pinched Karl Rove at a black-tie dinner. But when she visited Florida this spring to promote awareness of global warming, she drew a warm welcome from none other than Charlie Crist, the state's Republican governor. In return, she gave him a shout-out during one of her concerts. "It's awesome," she said. "We're just following him around worshipping him."

Crow is not the first liberal charmed by Charlie Crist, who has been perhaps the most surprising new governor anywhere in the country this year. In addition to making global warming a priority - he hosted a high-profile summit in Miami headlined by California's Arnold Schwarzenegger - Crist has promoted stem-cell research and endorsed civil unions for gay couples. He has changed state policy to increase teacher pay and restore voting rights for ex-felons. He has appointed a large number of Democrats to top administration positions.

It's not so much that Crist has turned into a liberal. It's that he has developed an almost religious belief in bipartisanship. Crist's penchant for reaching across the aisle extends beyond finding common ground with Democrats on occasional hot-button issues. On the bread-and-butter questions of governance, such as budget and regulatory policy, Crist has consulted regularly with Democratic leaders in the legislature, even though the GOP has plenty of votes to spare. His style marks a dramatic change from his predecessor, Jeb Bush, who was quick to stamp out dissent within his own party and almost never reached across the aisle. Dan Gelber, leader of Florida's House Democrats, says Crist treats them like "partners - junior partners, but not a nuisance."

Crist's bipartisan approach stands in sharp contrast not only to Bush but also to most recent American governors. It's natural for governors to seek out the political center as a means of building the broadest possible support for their legislative goals. But as a rule, they trouble themselves with the opposing party only as much as they have to. More often, state policy making is driven by concerns about the next campaign and the need to define differences between the parties. "Maybe 30 or 40 years ago, you had that hiatus before the next campaign season started, and during that hiatus you governed," says Morris Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford. "Today, there is no interregnum, and you're running all the time."

Crist has consciously sought an end to that sense of standing on separate sidelines. "You get more done," he says, "and people have more fun." He might add that it's been spectacularly good politics as well. Even when he's taken unpopular stands - on re-enfranchising felons, for example - his positions have only mildly annoyed most voters, while making him a hero to a minority who otherwise would not be inclined to support him. Crist's constant populist rhetoric about being "the people's governor" who lives in "the people's mansion" can wear a bit thin, but his approach, so far at least, has been hugely successful. Steve Geller, the Senate Democratic leader, has taken to calling Crist "Mr. 77 Percent," in reference to the high water mark of the governor's approval ratings.

Among the 23 percent who don't seem too happy with Crist are many of his own party's legislators, who believe he has given Democrats more of a say in policy than they've earned through the electoral process. "It does concern me," says Dennis Baxley, who stepped down a few weeks ago as House speaker pro tempore. "If there's no distinction between us and it doesn't matter what party you belong to, why would people elect us?"

There is in fact a good deal of Republican grumbling that Crist is undoing the agenda successfully pushed by Bush, who was the first GOP governor to work with a Republican legislature in more than a century. It's true that Crist has started to roll back some of Bush's privatization efforts and is unimpressed by Bush's faith in standardized tests as the be-all of education policy. Crist rejected 283 of Bush's late board and commission appointees, and has not shied from putting some former Bush enemies in positions of power.

Yet most Republican leaders in Florida will concede, when pressed, that Crist has been politically good for them. Despite a favorable GOP redistricting map, the party showed serious weaknesses at the polls last year. With Crist leading the ticket - he was one of the few Republicans in the country able to hold on to an open governorship - his party managed to survive in relatively secure shape. "I don't know if I should call it fate," says Florida Senate President Ken Pruitt, "but when you have a Charlie Crist, he really is the right man for the moment."

POSTPARTISAN DILEMMA

Crist's conspicuous bipartisanship raises obvious comparisons to Schwarzenegger, who is successfully practicing his own brand of "post-partisanship" at the other end of the country. A Republican governor working closely with the Democrats in Sacramento, Schwarzenegger has presided over a long series of legislative victories, including a $42 billion bond package, a widely touted global-warming bill and major prison-building and prisoner-rehab programs. Much of Schwarzenegger's rhetoric sounds similar to the things Crist is saying right now in Tallahassee.

But there are crucial differences. Schwarzenegger became an apostle of bipartisan accommodation only after an initial two years as a strong partisan, during which he referred to the Democrats who dominate the California legislature as "girlie men" and proposed an unsuccessful series of ballot measures designed to weaken them through changes in redistricting procedure and union fundraising methods. Schwarzenegger began to work with the Democrats when it became clear he needed them. "What the governor has been able to do is strike deals with Democrats on Democratic issues," says Joe Canciamilla, a former Democratic state Assemblyman. "That's really not hard to do."

Crist, on the other hand, doesn't really have to work with Democrats at all. His own party controls almost two-thirds of the legislature. Every indication is that Crist has chosen the bipartisan path because he simply wants to. He describes himself as a golden-rule Republican, saying that if he were in the shoes of the minority, "I would want to be consulted and included."

Consultation goes a long way. For all his efforts to reach out, Crist clearly remains a conservative. He talks tough on crime - not quite the way he did in his legislative days, when the press nicknamed him "Chain-Gang Charlie" for proposing forced prison labor - but still tough. He insisted that an "anti-murder bill," which will make it tougher for violent criminals to stay out on probation, had to be the first bill he signed as governor, and it was.

He generally takes a hard line on taxes and spending and other issues that his own party cares most about. Crist broke Jeb Bush's single-year record for vetoing "turkeys" - Tallahassee talk for pork-barrel spending - and his first budget, coming at a time when Florida's long years of revenue growth finally stalled, was a budget conservatives found easy to accept. They were especially pleased when he called a special session in June on property taxes that led to the largest tax cut in state history. "He has proved to me that on the big-picture conservative issues, he is rock solid," says Senate Republican Whip Mike Haridopolos. "It's smart of the governor to take ideas from all sides, as long as it's not raising taxes."

Democrats ultimately balked at the property-tax bill, saying it would lead to deep cuts in fire and police protection, and in support for public schools. Here was a fundamental point of disagreement between the parties - cutting taxes vs. maintaining government services - and yet even on that issue, the argument's losers couldn't stay mad at the governor for long. Senator Steve Geller says the Democrats' honeymoon with Crist was merely "interrupted" by the tax controversy - not ended.

"You know that b.s. President Bush has said about being a uniter, not a divider?" says Geller. "Charlie Crist has honestly been a uniter. What Charlie has done is actually a model for the rest of the country."

LET'S MAKE A DEAL

Some governors will admit, privately, that they like having at least one chamber of their state's legislature controlled by the other party. There's a good reason for this. In a one-party state, governors often feel pushed to the far left or far right. Neither is a very good recipe for effective policy formation.

It's striking how many governors have stumbled this year in states where the legislature is controlled by their own party. Some, like Democrat Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Republican Jim Gibbons of Nevada, have faltered through personal gaffes and public relations missteps. But others have simply found majority status to be tricky.

Democrat Bill Ritter of Colorado stunned his party's legislators when he vetoed a labor-organizing bill he had campaigned for. Republican Sonny Perdue of Georgia watched the GOP-controlled House vote 163 to 5 to override his veto of a budget bill, and both chambers are planning to hold override votes on a series of other Perdue vetoes that legislators believe were punitive and designed to undermine their authority. Illinois Democrat Rod Blagojevich, who has continually attacked the legislature his party dominates, suffered the most embarrassing repudiation of all when his plan to raise money to pay for universal health coverage was voted down in the House, 107 to 0.

In many cases it remains easier for a governor to promote an agenda when his or her party holds a majority of the seats. But governors can also get much of what they want out of the opposition as well. Ed Rendell, the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, has been viewed by many as a partisan figure: He once served as national chairman of the Democratic Party. Yet throughout his first term, Rendell got most of what he wanted out of a legislature dominated by Republicans. He was, says Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo, "more or less forced to accept reality and work with Republicans."

Rendell succeeded with plans to increase community and economic development funding through bonds, increase school funding to reduce class sizes and provide pre-primary education, expand the state's environmental efforts and expand gambling to pay for property-tax relief. Rendell pulled this off not just by sharing credit but by sharing appointment power and control of certain pursestrings with Republican legislative leaders. "He's not moored in a lot of fixed positions," says Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. "He's the consummate 'Let's Make a Deal' governor."

Ironically, things are more complicated for Rendell as a result of Democratic success at the polls last November. The governor's party took control of the House by a one-seat margin, but his working majority actually disappeared. His top Republican trading partners are out of office or out of power. A large class of new Republicans in both legislative chambers was elected on pledges not to cut deals with Rendell. They balked at several tax hikes Rendell had proposed, and their intransigence over part of his economic development strategy even led to a one-day government shutdown last month. In the end, said the deal-making governor, "We all blinked a little bit. Unless there is mutual blinking, there is no budget and no legislation that comes out of here."

NO FIXED COMPASS?

If there's any complaint about Charlie Crist that cuts across party lines, it's that he may be too willing to sacrifice principle in favor of cutting a deal that everyone can feel good about. "My concern all along," says Baxley, "has been, how does somebody that flexible keep us on the right course?"

More than either Schwarzenegger or Rendell, Crist came to the governor's office with bipartisanship in his background. He had used it during his term as attorney general, keeping in place many of the top officials who had served under his Democratic predecessor, Bob Butterworth. (As governor, Crist put Butterworth himself in charge of the state's troubled Department of Children and Families.) And while many were expecting Attorney General Crist to polish his reputation as Chain-Gang Charlie, Crist in fact spent more of his efforts on consumer issues. He crusaded against energy price-gouging and kept a telephone-rate increase tied up in court for two years.

Now, as governor, Crist likes to remain above the fray. Jeb Bush was a policy wonk who not only set the agenda but understood and insisted upon every detail of his proposals. Crist lays out the broad terms of what he wants to do and then leaves it to the legislature to work its will. At times, he can appear almost out of touch. When it looked like his property-tax proposal was in real trouble, with Republicans as well as Democrats raising objections, Crist took it in stride. "I'm not twisting arms," he told a gaggle of reporters. "If they want to support it, they should. If they don't, they shouldn't. The people will direct them to a good conclusion."

Even when he meets with legislators and interest groups, Crist sometimes acts as if he's more interested in being genial and sincere than in taking direct action. Talking with about a dozen representatives of the housing industry over lemonade on the sun porch of the governor's mansion one recent afternoon, Crist leaned forward and focused intently on each individual who spoke, furrowing his brow into an expression of concern and compassion. After each one finished, he echoed back the main points or found some other way to convey sympathy - but didn't actually commit himself to anything. Throughout Crist's career in politics, some critics have found this style cloying and contrived. But it seems to work. "That friendly type of personality really serves him well," insists lobbyist Curt Kiser, who shared an office with Crist when both served in the state Senate, "not only around voters but in trying to make deals and trying to govern."

Kiser and others warn that the governor's frequent air of detachment should not be taken for fatalism. If Crist is willing to leave policy details to the legislature, he is still very much the driving force when it comes to budgets and tax cuts - and to his more liberal policies, such as a $68 million commitment to combat global warming. "He knows he has friends in the legislature who can get that fine print," says Haridopolos, "but he is the unquestioned head of the orchestra."

The big question Crist faces is not whether his approach can play well to the electorate. That's already clear. The question is whether his compromises will ultimately prove to be good policy. A homeowners insurance relief bill, passed in a special session early this year, has not led to the deep rate discounts that were initially promised. In the meantime, Citizens Property Insurance, a new state-run insurance pool, has almost instantly become the largest underwriter of wind-damage insurance for homes and condos. "Citizens is big in all the bad places," says Robert Hunter, director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America. "If a hurricane hits, Citizens no doubt will get clobbered." Democrats had a great deal of input into the homeowners insurance law, so they will share some of the blame if the state's increased financial liability proves burdensome after a major storm.

On the other hand, Democrats weren't so happy with the property-tax cut, complaining that the $31.6 billion reduction, while enormous, will do little if anything to alleviate gross disparities in individual tax bills or problems for commercial landowners that were caused by an earlier tax-cap law. Voters will hear countless arguments about the law and its effects, including billions' worth of cuts to schools and other local government services, over the next six months, because their approval in an election next January will be required for much of the plan to take effect.

And that vote in January will serve as a reminder of a political reality that Crist fully understands: At some point, a rough collision between the parties is unavoidable in a state like Florida. Sustained bipartisanship is difficult even for a golden-rule governor with a 77 percent approval rating. Legislators who have to run every two years can't really escape a continuous campaign mindset, no matter how much they may like a chief executive from the other party. Party leaders in the legislature play more of a role in controlling campaign strategy and cash than they used to, with competitive elections primarily funded out of legislative or caucus committees. That means the campaign is run very much from within the legislature itself, which serves to increase rather than defuse partisanship.

And so the reality that there's always another election looming weighs on Democratic minds even as they express their satisfaction with the way Crist has treated them. Although they are happy that he takes their pulse and has sided with them on some issues, Florida Democrats are already worrying that too much cooperation and agreement might seal their fate as the minority party for years to come. "Governor Crist says we're going to govern from the center in a bipartisan or nonpartisan manner, and we're going to do it with a different tone," says Gelber, the House Democratic leader. "If this catches on, I don't know what any of us are going to do for a living."

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