Crist remains popular after a tough first year in office

Jan 1, 2008


Property taxes didn’t "drop like a rock" during Gov. Charlie Crist’s first year in office, but neither did his approval rating.

The Republican weathered a difficult year well, despite making only modest gains on two of the issues he championed most during his campaign – lowering property taxes and property insurance rates.

His approval rating did drop. It almost had to, having reached 73 percent in July. But even with more than $1 billion in budget cuts, property insurance rates that remain high and property tax cuts that didn’t return much to people’s wallets, Crist was given a thumb’s up by 65 percent of respondents in an October poll by Quinnipiac University.

"People know that they are tough problems and don’t lend themselves to quick, easy solutions, but he’s getting good marks for the fact that he’s trying, and he’s trying through bringing people together rather than my-way-or-the-highway," said Bob Graham, a Democrat who served two terms as governor before serving three terms in the U.S. Senate.

Even beyond the taxes, insurance and the budget, Crist had a busy year. His first official act was the creation of Office of Open Government to help ensure state agencies comply with Sunshine and public records laws. As part of his effort to make government more user friendly, he also ordered agencies under his oversight to use plain language instead of government jargon and acronyms.

Also in January, Crist went through his first special legislative session as governor and signed a bill that sought to reduce property insurance by rolling back rates at the state-created Citizens Property Insurance Corp. and allowing private insurance to buy cheaper backup insurance from the state’s catastrophe fund.

During the session, he displayed a style that would be seen throughout the year. He set broad goals, and let the Legislature work out the details without too much interference from his office. He also sought support and ideas from Democrats as well as Republicans, and gave the opposing party equal credit when the work was done. That was a change from Jeb Bush, his Republican predecessor, who generally ignored Democrats when he wasn’t verbally hammering them.

"He changed the tone in Tallahassee. Gov. Crist is a very open person who not only listens to, but solicits advice from, a lot of different perspectives. He is a person who is not an ideologue," Graham said. "State government is much less partisan than it has been in the recent past."

That reputation was boosted when Crist took action on causes that were important to Democrats. He worked with the Cabinet to automatically restore voting rights for most felons who have completed their sentences and he signed a bill to require a paper trail for all ballots cast.

Also during its regular session, the Legislature quickly sent Crist his top campaign priority, the "Anti-Murder Act." It requires judges to keep violent offenders jailed when they violate probation. While he didn’t get 100 percent of what he wanted on other issues, he got something on most, like reading coaches and teacher bonuses in public schools and money for environmental projects.

A month after he took office, tornadoes struck central Florida, killing 21 and smashing dozens of homes. Crist stayed in the area for three days after the storm. He gave up his Super Bowl ticket and watched the game on TV with firefighters back in Tallahassee.

In July, he emerged as a national leader on climate change issues, hosting a summit in Miami that received worldwide attention. It featured a keynote address by Democrat Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who used the opportunity to sharply criticize Republican President Bush. Crist applauded the remarks.

Crist made trips around the country to talk about climate change, reminding people that no other state has more to lose if ocean levels rise. At one of those events, he stood side-by-side with former Democratic President Bill Clinton, who heaped praise on Crist.

The governor installed solar panels and a hydrogen fuel cell at the governor’s mansion, ordered state agencies to reduce energy use and set lofty goals for power companies to reduce carbon emissions. On top of that, his state vehicle runs on ethanol.

Crist also went on two international trade missions, the first to the Middle East and another to South America.

And he spent some of the year meeting with celebrities appearing with singer Sheryl Crow to talk about climate change; meeting with actors Sharon Stone and Jimmy Fallon to promote filming in Florida; introducing Jimmy Buffett to 20,000 fans after a backstage discussion on manatee protection; hanging out at a Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice before taping a video to boost physical fitness; and rubbing elbows with Donald Trump to build support for a property tax cut ballot measure.

His office at the Capitol was also a revolving door for Republican presidential candidates seeking his support before the presidential primary, which Crist and the Legislature moved from March 4 to Jan. 29 to draw more attention to the state in the selection process.

Crist used the opportunity to lobby the likes of Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, John McCain and Fred Thompson to support a national insurance backup fund and continued Everglades restoration money, should one of them become president.

By the end of the year, Crist signed an agreement with the Seminole Tribe to allow Las Vegas-style slot machines and card games like blackjack at their seven casinos in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars from the tribe – a move that upset some conservative, antigambling Republicans.

House Speaker Marco Rubio and Senate President Ken Pruitt are challenging his authority to enter the agreement without legislative approval. Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum also has questioned whether Crist can legally make that deal.

Asked recently if he considered himself a conservative Republican, Crist said, "Sure." Pressed further on what that means, he said, "I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter to me, if you want to know the truth. I’m not trying to seek and fit the definition of a label. I’m trying to do what’s right."

But he has often been called a populist, and he acknowledged that’s a label he can accept.

"If that means wanting to do what’s right for the people, isn’t that what I’m supposed to do? I see that as my job. I want them to be happy. I want them to be pleased," Crist said. "If people are happy, it makes me happy … So yeah, I’m a populist, I guess, if that’s the definition."

Crist is heading into his second year dealing with the same issues that faced him when he took office last January. He was campaigning in support of a ballot question to cut and limit property taxes and he was looking into legal action against insurance companies to make sure they are passing on savings to policy holders, as required by a new law.

"There’s no real quick fix," said former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez. He added, though, that Floridians seem to trust Crist.

"They still believe in him to solve these issues, and he’s a good communicator. When he talks to the people of Florida he does a good job of addressing them," Martinez said. "But these are issues that people won’t forget because these are bills that hit you once a year."

Still, Martinez predicted that the second year will come easier for Crist, noting that even though Crist was handling important issues immediately after taking office, he was also getting his feet wet, choosing the people who serve with him and adjusting to the office.

"He’s in good position to go to his second (year), which will be fully his," Martinez said. "He’s an old quarterback and it’s his game now."