Florida Gov. Charles Crist’s appointment of his closest political associate, unknown George LeMieux to the Senate may cause some harm to Crist’s own bid for the same Senate seat next year. Two weeks ago Crist made the appointment to fill out the remaining sixteen months of the term of fellow Republican Mel Martinez (who had resigned his Senate seat) the warning signs are clearly in sight.
At first, supporters of the moderate Crist’s primary opponent, former Florida House speaker and stalwart conservative Marco Rubio, blasted the governor’s choice of former campaign manager and chief of staff as a case of cronyism. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is making a rare pre-primary endorsement of Crist over Rubio.
The NRSC noted that in 1960, John F. Kennedy orchestrated the appointment to his Massachusetts Senate seat of Harvard friend Benjamin Smith, who would hold it until 1962 when Ted Kennedy reached the minimum constitutional age (30) to run himself. More recently, the NRSC pointed out, Joe Biden secured the appointment to his Delaware seat for two years of longtime political associate Ted Kaufman, who presumably will serve until 2010 when son Beau Biden has completed his military obligations and is ready to run for the seat.
But in the case of the 40-year-old LeMieux being named by Crist — who is under fire from Rubio and many other conservatives for being considerably less-than-conservative — “cronyism” may indeed be an issue when it involves this particular crony of this particular governor. LeMieux’s nebulous stands on major issues of the day, his past support of controversial measures such as gay adoption, and his recent background as a lobbyist could easily cause Crist more problems in a contested Republican primary next year.
Where Does LeMieux Stand On Health Care, Marriage?
“Not pleased with C. Crist’s appointment in Florida,” a onetime Tallahassee Republican activist and former staffer in the Florida legislature and Congress wrote me. “It would make sense to name a placeholder if we were in a "normal" year, but the stakes are so high right now with all the pending extremist legislation.”
The Wall Street Journal echoed this view, noting “[w]ith a health-care public option in the balance in coming weeks, no one seems to know how Mr. LeMieux might vote. . . Florida voters have a right to expect more than a mini-me appointee to serve for sixteen months in what could be a momentous Congress.”
His association with Crist notwithstanding, LeMieux is a past Broward County (Fort Lauderdale) Republican chairman and did run unsuccessfully for the state House from the Broward area in 1998. In that campaign, LeMieux — obviously hoping to appeal to the influential gay community in Fort Lauderdale and Wilton Manor — told Miami Herald political reporter Steve Bousquet (who is now with the Times-Herald) that gay couples should be allowed to adopt children. He also said he favored domestic partnership laws to extend health care and other benefits enjoyed by married couples.
In opposing gay marriage, Candidate LeMieux did say he was willing to let voters have the final say in a referendum. As he told Bousquet in September 1998, “Marriage is a fundamental kind of institution. If you’re going to have such a significant change, I think the people would have to speak on it.”
LeMieux, the Seminole Tribe, and Roger Stone
But perhaps the most controversial aspect of LeMieux’s appointment to the Senate is his link to the Seminole Indian Tribe and gambling as both the governor’s top aide and a lobbyist.
On August 20, 2007, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported that Crist’s then-chief of staff LeMieux was the governor’s point man in negotiations with the Seminole Tribe and “expects the agreement to be reached this week.”
A few weeks later, Gov. Crist and Mitchell Cypress, chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, signed a deal that “allows the tribe to have ‘Las Vegas’ style slot machines and ‘banked card games’ such as blackjack and baccarat.” (Sarasota Herald Tribune, November 15, 2007). Legislators of both parties went ballistic, charging that any deals with the Seminoles required their approval. Among those leading the charge in court was then-House Speaker Rubio, whose attorney told the court “[t]he governor does not get to implement public policy by himself” without legislative approval.
In July 2008, the Florida Supreme Court agreed and struck down the agreement LeMieux negotiated and Crist signed with the Seminole Tribe. Private Citizen LeMieux, who represents clients for the Gunster Yoakley firm, said he’s negotiating a new gambling agreement with the tribe on Crist’s behalf for free.
Veteran Republican consultant Roger Stone, who has done work for South Florida paramutual betting parlors opposed to the Seminole compact, has a different view. He pointed out to reporters that 71% of the $912,000 the Seminoles gave to the Republican Party since 1996 was given since Crist won the Republican nomination for governor in 2006. In forms he was required to file with the Senate after his appointment, LeMieux revealed he earned $150,000 from the state Republican Party of Florida over the past thirteen months.
“The pattern of giving and the flow of money to LeMieux are deeply concerning,” Stone told the Miami Herald. “I don’t see you can be an objective negotiator with the tribe when it appears as if he was paid by the Seminoles using [Republican Party of Florida] as a pass through.”
Heard enough? Perhaps a stopgap senator who serves for sixteen months isn’t all that important. But given the issues facing Congress, it has to be a disappointment to the conservative base among Florida Republicans when Crist — his stands on climate control and the Obama stimulus package have already generated anger — names someone whose views are largely unknown and his associations questionable. The governor could have made political points by naming someone whose views were known, such as conservative former Rep. Lou Frey or former Sen. Connie Mack. He didn’t and, as the Wall Street Journal concluded: “Mr. Crist’s Senate choice is another reason to wonder if his principles extend beyond his own political ambitions.”