Florida's Crist Works Hard to Spread GOP Liberalism

Arnold Schwarzenegger is getting competition these days for being the most liberal Republican governor in the nation. When it comes to embracing global warming and retreating from cultural conservatism, the Republican chief executive in Florida, Charlie Crist, is mentioned almost as frequently as the famed “Governator” of California.

And unlike the Austrian-born Schwarzenegger, Crist — who has been profiled recently in national media outlets from Time magazine to Fox News — is eligible to be President. There has even been talk among some Sunshine State Republicans that the former state legislator and two-term attorney general might be a good vice presidential candidate on a ticket headed by Rudy Giuliani, who tops the field of presidential hopefuls in most surveys of Florida GOPers.

Although Florida’s 27 electoral votes would make any governor an attractive prospect for a national ticket, the growing media interest in the 51-year-old Crist seems less to do with geography than with ideology. Like New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in the 1960s and Massachusetts Gov. William Weld in the 90s, Crist stands out in the media because, in a Republican Party that has been moving to the right, the Floridian is increasingly non-conservative.

The inevitable contrasts are being made between Crist and his Republican predecessor in Tallahassee, Jeb Bush, who, unlike his father or brother, rarely had his conservative credentials doubted. As Governing magazine noted: “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.”

Contrasting Crist’s regularly consulting Democratic legislators on policy matters with Bush’s passionate conservatism, state Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller told reporters: “I don’t recall our inviting Gov. Bush to any of our meetings. Since Gov. Crist has taken office, there really has been a new day in Tallahassee. For the first time, we feel like we are dealing in a partnership with the governor instead of having someone to dictate to us.”

What makes this somewhat strange is that Crist doesn’t need to be in partnership with Democratic lawmakers, since Republicans control almost two-thirds of the seats in the state senate and house of representatives.

‘The Jolly Green Giant’

Crist is not just being contrasted to Jeb Bush. He is also frequently likened to California’s Schwarzenegger, a Republican who has to work with a legislature in overwhelmingly Democratic hands. Like Schwarzenegger, Crist has embraced the cause of environmentalism with vigor. Earlier this year, he issued executive orders to cut emissions from tailpipes and smokestacks to pre-1990 levels. “European-style big-government mandates,” is what House Speaker Marco Rubio, a Republican from Miami, branded the governor’s orders, warning that Floridians could expect higher utility bills if the state goes along with Crist’s call to cut carbon emissions on utilities below 1990 levels.

Six months after taking office, Crist held a two-day summit on global warming that drew more than 600 participants and swatches of national publicity. Vowing to “place our state at the forefront of a growing worldwide movement to reduce greenhouse gases,” the governor also spoke to a representative from Great Britain about a partnership on environmental issues and declared in his State of the State Address that “global climate change is one of the most important issues we will face in this century.”

When a questioner at a Miami event named scientists who question global warming and asked Crist whom he relied on for proof it does exist, the governor simply replied: “Terry” — Terry Tamminen, former California Environmental Protection Agency head who has tutored Schwarzenegger and Crist on the issue.

Left-Leaning Social Agenda

In terms of social issues, the governor has said he doesn’t want the state Republican Party to spend any more money on promotion of a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. In his words, “I just think that their money can be better spent on other things that may be more pressing, like elections.” While running for governor last year, Crist endorsed and even signed a petition for the Florida Marriage Amendment Protection Act.

In addition to civil unions for gay couples, the governor’s social agenda also includes support for embryonic stem-cell research and restoration of voting rights to former felons.

To be sure, Crist has promoted a property tax cut that is the largest in state history and actually vetoed more pork-barrel spending in his first year than Jeb Bush did in any single year.

But in terms of the environment, privatization and many cultural issues, there is a case to be made that Charlie Crist is more than just a “Republican In Name Only” (RINO), but, in fact, is what the American Spectator called a “RINO’s RINO.” Crist himself refers to his philosophy as “post-partisanship.”

Whatever it is, it has certainly put the governor of the nation’s fourth-largest state in the national limelight and could even lead to a spot on a national ticket.