A union hall was an unlikely venue for Charlie Crist’s first interview with the LGBT press. But the former Republican governor, now Democratic candidate for the same office, has a busy schedule these days. After meeting with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades on Saturday, Dec. 14, he made himself available for an exclusive conversation.
To the union members, Crist described his ambitious agenda if elected: creating jobs, boosting education, protecting the environment, expanding health care and voting rights, and even resurrecting high speed rail. And he acknowledged the tough race ahead against Republican incumbent multi-millionaire Rick Scott.
“I’m running against a $100 million meat-grinder,” Crist told them. “I need more than your support, I need your commitment.”
Some Democrats see Crist as an unwanted, undeserving interloper. His announcement all but extinguished the candidacy of South Florida’s Nan Rich, an experienced former Senate Minority Leader with liberal bona fides.
But many have cheered his arrival, seeing a real chance to regain the governor’s mansion for the first time in fifteen years. Despite a confounding run for U.S. Senate in 2010, first as a Republican and then as an Independent, recent polls show that Floridians still like Charlie. He currently leads Scott by anywhere from four to 14 points, and U.S. Senator Bill Nelson by 13 points in a matchup of Democrats.
It was easy to see why at the union hall. Crist likes people and enjoys campaigning. He connected with many in the audience—remembering not only their names but those of their spouses and mothers—with a Clinton-like charisma that is both powerful and persuasive. He left with a check and a standing ovation.
But the LGBT community poses special challenges. Crist recently endorsed same-sex marriage rights and all the other components of full equality. But when the Amendment 2 constitutional ban on same-sex marriage appeared on the 2008 ballot, Crist announced his support just weeks before voting day. It passed by less than two percentage points, and many gays and lesbian still blame their former governor. And as recently as 2010, while running for U.S. Senate, he told CNN he believed marriage should be between a man and a woman.
I asked him about all that and more during an hour-long interview. A skeptic, I was surprised and even a little disarmed by his candor. I can’t wait to find out if you are, too.
WATERMARK: I’ve been looking forward to this dialogue. Many members of the LGBT community are enthusiastic about your candidacy, but just as many are skeptical and some are even hostile. I want to give you an opportunity to address their concerns head on.
CHARLIE CRIST: Thank you for the opportunity.
Speaking to union members just now, you talked about the difference between voters who support you, and those who are committed to your candidacy. Almost everyone I know is excited about the prospect of removing Rick Scott from office and electing a Democrat as governor. You’ll get their vote for that reason. How important is it—to you—to articulate a vision that will energize them; that will get them committed to your campaign.
CC: Extremely important. Florida has five or six hundred thousand more registered Democrats than Republicans. That’s wonderful… truly, it is a blessing. But it won’t do us any good if they don’t vote. And that’s been the problem.
You can’t just ask people to vote for you. You have to explain why people should want to vote for you. And in my view, they have to understand that if they’re voting for me, they’re really voting for themselves. This is a campaign for the people of Florida to get somebody back in that office of authority—the governor’s office—that really does care about them.
So to answer your question directly, it’s extremely important… that we not only energize the base, but also independents and moderate Republicans… reasonable people all over the state who care about ethics, who care about the environment, who care deeply and passionately about public education, who care about the economy, which I think is directly linked to education… minority rights, gay rights… all of those things.
Watermark: But there are some hurdles for you in terms of generating enthusiasm. You were the Republican governor, and in 2010 you chose not to run for re-election even though you were the odds-on favorite to win a second term.
CC: Well, I did run in 2010. I ran for the Senate… for Florida. Hear me. I know where you’re going, and you deserve an answer.
Why didn’t I run for re-election? Because the thing I’m most proud of in my one term as governor is that we changed the tone in Tallahassee. It truly became bipartisan. Honestly… it was miraculous. I call it the ‘Golden Era of the State Legislature’ because very few votes were all that partisan. It’s true. And we were able to do so many things for the people. To give you just two quick examples, we reduced their property taxes and we made sure that utility companies would treat them fairly. And we all worked together to do that… Republicans, Democrats and Independents.
I also saw what was happening in Washington, D.C., and how difficult it was for our new President to get things done. And I thought, well, we’ve done some good things here. I think it might be a good idea to bring some of that bipartisan spirit to Washington and help my President, my state and my country. So I ran for the Senate. Not from Alabama. I ran for the Senate… for Florida. I never left, and I didn’t not run. I just didn’t win.
Watermark: That leads to another hurdle. When you initially ran for Senate you were still a Republican. Then during the campaign you left the party and became an Independent. And now, just four years later, you’re a Democrat.
CC: Thank god.
Watermark: But now here you are. In addition to convincing a majority of voters that you’re in alignment with their beliefs, you have to explain to them how you could maintain those beliefs while switching parties twice in four years. From a distance those changes appear more opportunistic than ideological.
CC: It was about being honest, and being truthful to myself and my soul. I’ve always believed that it’s important to treat people decently, to be kind to other people, to have compassion for those who may be suffering. And I found myself in a party that was doing less and less of that, and even discriminating against people. I’m talking about the leadership… there are still many, many good Republicans. Jeb Bush even acknowledged it. The Republican leadership is now perceived as being anti-women, anti-gay, anti-minority, anti-environment, anti-public education. With that many antis, the room empties out. I didn’t want to be in that room anymore, and I’m delighted to be where I am.
Watermark: It’s always been important to me to be inclusive, to protect the environment, to fight for education, to do what’s right for working middle-class people. I did it as Attorney General, and I did it as a state senator. As a Republican governor, I vetoed a bill that would have shortchanged women in their ability to make their own decisions. And I vetoed a bill that would have punished public school teachers. I did those things—as a Republican—to remain true to my core, and to the values and principles that my mother and father instilled in me.
CC: I haven’t changed. I’ve stayed the same. The Republican Party, on the other hand, went nuts. I’m not there anymore, and I’ve never felt more comfortable, politically, then I do now as a Democrat. I wrote a book about all this; it comes out in February. The title is The Party’s Over… and I’m not talking about Democrats.
Watermark: You talked about the fact that there are more Democrats than Republicans in Florida, and almost as many independents. But the legislature remains almost two-thirds Republican, and dominated mostly by right-wing conservatives.
CC: Many of them are zealots.
Watermark: If elected—as a Democrat—how would you accomplish the ambitious goals you just talked about in the union hall?
CC: I don’t think I’m going to be the only new person elected. I think there’s going to be change in the Florida House and Senate.
And our wonderful Supreme Court helped us with that just yesterday with their ruling on the Fair Districts Amendments. They ruled that Republicans in the state legislature must share records that would disclose whether they intentionally tried to gerrymander voting districts for political purposes. I think that’s going to be a tough lift for them under oath… unless they do like Gov. Scott did and plead the 5th all day long.
So I don’t think I’ll be going to Tallahassee alone. I think there’s going to be a lot of change in 2014. I’m excited about it.
Watermark: Do you know Joe Saunders, the gay representative from Orlando?
CC: Of course… wonderful guy. I was with him last night at a holiday party at the Hammered Lamb.
Watermark: After a year in Tallahassee, he’s come to believe that just a handful more Democrats in the state legislature will create a shift in power, and in what gets done. Because even though Republicans will still be in the majority, it will create room for moderate Republicans to assert themselves. Any thoughts on his analysis?
CC: I think he’s right, and it dovetails with what we’ve been talking about. Joe’s a brilliant young man. I love the guy… very impressive. He’s got an incredible future ahead of him that I’ll enjoy watching. And he’s right. In this business you have to have the ability to look over the horizon a little bit… kind of feel and sense what’s coming, and be prepared for it. I think Joe’s spot on.
I think we’re going to elect a Democratic governor. We have the opportunity to elect a Democratic Attorney General. And I believe we’ll elect more Democrats in both the Florida House and Senate. I really do.
The first conversation I had about this was right after President Obama got re-elected. My dear friend Bob Graham, the former governor and senator, called me and we had a discussion about the fact that this man—this Democrat—had won Florida twice. Most people didn’t see that coming, but I did. I’d been with him several times, campaigning for him in Florida… including in Broward County the Sunday right before the Tuesday election. We were at a high school football field with close to 30,000 people who’d waited for hours to see him. And they were going nuts. It was unbelievable. When you see that kind of enthusiasm and passion, you start to question polls that say otherwise. I knew he was going to win, and thank god he did.
Florida’s changing. She’s turning blue.
Watermark: You’ve recently articulated support for marriage equality, adoption rights, employment non-discrimination protections… pretty much all the acknowledged ingredients of full LGBT equality. At the same time, I think it’s legitimate for members of the LGBT community to be skeptical.
When you first ran for governor in 2006, you said that a ban on same-sex marriage was unnecessary, but then you signed a petition to place Amendment 2 [banning same-sex marriage] on the ballot…
CC: …and I’m sorry. I’m sorry I did that. It was a mistake. I was wrong. Please forgive me.
Watermark: I appreciate that, but I want to make sure I spell this out in full. After you signed the petition you said Amendment 2 wasn’t an issue that moved you, but then you ended up voting for it, saying you believed in it. Just three years ago, when you were running for the Senate as a Republican, you told CNN that you believed that “marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman.” And just three years ago, when talking about gay adoption, you expressed a belief that traditional families are best…
CC: Tom… I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
Watermark: Well again, I appreciate that. But I think it’s important for you to address this. When you look back at the circumstances, one could come to the conclusion that your shifts in opinion were either politically expedient…
CC: They were. They were. And it was wrong. That’s what I’m telling you. And I’m sorry.
Watermark: … or that you were just trying to make everyone happy and had no real convictions on these matters. I appreciate the apology…
CC: I’m not sure you do.
Watermark: Well, I’m trying. But more importantly I want you to have the opportunity to address this in full; to explain where you’ve been and where you are right now.
CC: I was a Republican. You know why I was a Republican? Because my mom and dad were Republicans. I’ve told many people this. It’s the same reason I’m a Methodist. So I grew up as a Republican. I joined the Young Republicans, College Republicans… all that stuff. And as I got older I got interested in politics, and I ran for office as a Republican and I tried to be a good team player. But it was an awkward fit, and on social issues it was especially awkward. I have three sisters. My mom and dad raised my three sisters and me to be decent to other people, to be kind to other people, to have compassion, empathy, sympathy when necessary… the things we talked about earlier. And it became harder and harder for me to toe the Republican party line. I tried, and I tried, and I tried… until I couldn’t any more.
The examples you cited were examples of me trying to be a good Republican. I couldn’t do it anymore, and I’m sorry I did. I made a mistake. I’m not perfect… please don’t hold me to that standard. And I’m sincerely sorry. I understand when it’s necessary to say I was wrong. That‘s the journey I’m on… and I’m still on it.
As a Republican, on social issues I always felt I was a round peg in a square hole. I just didn’t fit. But I tried, until I couldn’t do it any more… until I had to say, ‘Enough is enough.’
My mom and dad raised us to love everyone, to be nice to everyone, to be kind to everyone for as long as you possibly can. So telling women what to do with their bodies, telling people who to love or who to marry… it’s not for me. It’s not for government. It shouldn’t be for anybody. It’s between them and their god. I’ve always really felt that way, and I’m glad I don’t have to pretend anymore. As a Democrat I don’t have to, and that’s why I’m so happy to be home… where I belong.
Watermark: I want to follow up, because I think this is where many LGBT voters need reassurance. You’re a Democrat now. The positions you now hold on LGBT issues are those held by most Democrats, and likely necessary for you have credibility within the party. Can you convince us that your present views aren’t once again driven by political expediency? Can you convince us that the positions you’ve recently expressed are heartfelt, and something we can count on in the future?
CC: I just did. There will be doubters, and they have a right to that. But I ask that they have a little faith.
Watermark: You’ve said that you were inspired by President Obama’s expression of support for same-sex marriage earlier this year. How so?
CC: The President and I had the same view: we supported civil unions. I saw the interview he did with Robin Roberts last spring [in which he expressed support for same sex marriage]. I’m sure you’ve seen it. It’s powerful, because you can tell he’s speaking from the heart.
I can’t speak for the President, but I suspect that to some degree, like me, he felt his support for civil unions was political. And so he’s finally saying, ‘Enough is enough. I’m over this. I’m not going to play the political angle anymore. I’m tired of it.’ Which is just the way I feel. You get to a point in your life where you say, ‘I’m just going to tell it.’ And here I am… I’m telling it. And I don’t care what anyone thinks.
I love everyone. [Laughs.] That probably makes me odd, but I do… until I get a reason not to. I’m one of these people… I think like the President… who wants to give everyone not only a fair shot, but the best shot… the best chance at happiness. Everybody deserves to love who they want to. Everybody deserves to marry who they want to. Even the Pope has said, ‘Who am I to judge.’
I believe, in my heart and in my soul, that we’re entering an age of enlightenment like nothing we’ve ever seen. It’s happening. And I’m delighted to confront that… it’s wonderful.
Watermark: What you would do to advance LGBT equality as governor? Rep. Linda Stewart just introduced a bill to create a statewide Domestic Partner Registry. Given the progress made in other states it seems like a small thing, but even that faces many hurdles in the Republican-controlled State Legislature. The Competitive Workforce Act—an employment non-discrimination bill—can’t get out of committee. Marriage Equality seems a long way off, unless through some sort of court action. What can you do?
CC: I want to do all those things. It’s not complicated. It comes down to one word: fairness. Everybody deserves to be treated fairly.
Watermark: It must be liberating to be able to speak from your heart, instead of through some political calculus…
CC: It’s wonderful! I wish I’d done it 20 years ago! Can’t you feel it?
Watermark: CharlieCrist.com makes no mention of LGBT equality right now. Will that change?
Watermark: It won’t be sort of a subterranean thing that you trot out for appropriate groups?
CC: Do I look like I’m holding back? We’re not underwater with this… we’re riding the wave!
And to your point about Linda’s legislation, she called me a month ago to tell me what she was doing in case I was asked about it. And I said, ‘Can I ask you a favor? Go for marriage. Why go half way?’ She explained that she didn’t think it was politically possible at this time, and I said, ‘You don’t know unless you try. You’ve gotta push it to make it happen. Plus,’ I said, ‘I think it could help us win the governor’s race. It might not pass right now, but if marriage equality is out there as an option we can say that Rick Scott won’t sign it and Charlie will.’
And I will! It’s my heart. It’s what I believe.
Watermark: Polling shows that close to 50% of Floridians support marriage equality.
CC: It’s going to go higher… trust me. It’s the age of enlightenment that I believe we’re entering. Look what’s happened on this issue alone!
And really, great credit goes to President Obama. I mean, that interview [with Robin Roberts]… the next weekend there was a gay panelist [Andrew Sullivan] on Meet the Press, and when the moderator asked him what it meant to have the President say what he said, the panelist broke down in tears. And when the moderator apologized for upsetting him, the panelist explained that they were tears of joy. It’s wonderful.
Watermark: You once described yourself as a Ronald Reagan Republican. Would you now describe yourself as a Barack Obama Democrat?
CC: No question. I worked my butt off to get him reelected, and was proud to do so. I did it because I knew how important it was… and that was after fighting for his opponent, John McCain, in 2008. I was almost McCain’s vice-presidential running mate! (Laughs) I mean, this has been a journey, and not a little one. That’s why I wrote a book.
But in the last election I saw Romney and Ryan, and I saw the President. And in my last two years as governor I got to know President Obama; they were his first two years in office. I saw what he did—for us—with the stimulus, with the Recovery Act. Do you remember what it was like back then? The holidays in 2008 were not joyous for me because of what was going on with the economy… the way it was tanking. It was frightening, and people were really, really scared. They were losing their life savings in the stock market and in real estate.
Watermark: …and there was no one at the helm. The Bush administration kind of punted.
CC: Well, he did one good thing. He passed the TARP program that saved our financial institutions. That was good. But then the President came in and he made sure the people didn’t collapse. As my friend John Morgan says, the Stimulus Act was Americans investing in Americans. What’s wrong with that?
So I got to know the President… famously hugged him in Fort Myers. And then we had the worst environmental disaster in the history of America… the BP oil spill. And I saw my President again. He and Joe Biden and the whole administration came down to the Gulf Coast and the Panhandle over and over again. There were daily phone calls with all the gulf state governors. I was like, ‘This guy’s for real.’
Watermark: Let me take this opportunity to clarify where you stand with some litmus test items for Democrats. Let’s start with abortion. There’s some confusion…
CC: Which I can understand. It’s confusing because I’m ‘pro-life,’ but by my definition. I’m for life. But I don’t believe the government should tell women what they can and can’t do with their bodies. That may sound inconsistent… I don’t care. I think we’re all for life, and I don’t like the fact that one side of this issue has taken that term and made it theirs. Because when they say they’re pro-life, what are they saying about those of us who believe in choice… that we’re pro-death?! We’re all pro-life. So I’m pro-life, and I’m pro-choice. I’m pro-life because I’m for life, but I will not impose my will on others.
I have three sisters, so I learned it as a little guy. They’re smarter than we are… most of the time. My wife certainly is, and my sisters are, too. So how do I feel about abortion? It’s not a pleasant topic for anyone… let’s be honest. But sometimes difficult circumstances occur, and difficult choices need to be made in order for the mother’s life to be healthy, happy and productive.
Watermark: So you support a woman’s right to choose?
CC: I do. In fact, I vetoed a bill as governor that would have gotten in the way of that. And let me go back further. As a state senator 20 years ago I took the same stand. I’ve been consistent. It’s important for people who read this to know that. I was a Republican state senator from Tampa Bay. I was on the health care committee, and a bill came before us requiring a 24-hour waiting period before a woman could get an abortion. I thought, ‘What’s that about? To make them feel guilty? Like they haven’t thought about it enough already?’ So I voted no. And because of my no vote back in 1993—as a Republican—it killed the bill. It never got to the floor of the legislature. So this wasn’t about Democrat or Republican for me, Tom. It was because, like now, it wasn’t right for government to impose its will on peoples’ most private decisions.
Watermark: Would you work to create a health insurance exchange in Florida?
CC: Absolutely! And I would take the Medicaid expansion. Who wouldn’t?! It’s $51 billion over a ten year period, and we’re saying no to it?!
And here’s the funny part… Governor Rick Scott said he would take it, and now he’s running from it like I don’t know what. But I know why. It’s because he doesn’t want to lose his base. He didn’t lift a finger to get that money for Florida.
How does that touch peoples’ lives? It means a million or so of our fellow Floridians aren’t getting health care. That’s ineffective leadership. Those are poor people, who because of a bad policy decision are not going to get health care. What happens to sick people when they don’t get health care? They get sicker, or they die. That’s what Rick Scott is doing, and that‘s why I’m running.
For me, it’s never really been about right versus left. I hope you can see that. It’s really been more about right versus wrong. Rick Scott is wrong about so many things. We’re gonna get it right.
Watermark: Continued support for the ban on offshore drilling?
CC: Yes. How could you be governor during the BP oil spill and not get that right. That was a wake-up call.
Watermark: But there were many elected officials in Florida…
CC: They wanted to go right back in! Can you imagine the lunacy of that? That’s how powerful money is.
Watermark: Expansion of voting rights?
CC: I’m the guy that did it, by executive order as governor… as a Republican… with John McCain on the ballot against Barack Obama. I signed an executive order to expand voting rights in the state of Florida. And guess what Rick Scott did. He opposed it. We had worse lines at the polls in 2012 than ever. Dan Gelber and I called on him to expand voting hours… he wouldn’t do it. And as a result we were the last state to report results, well after the election had been called.
The President called me on Thursday after the Tuesday election… called me in St. Pete…and he said, ‘I want to personally thank you for your help, it made a big difference.’ And he said, ‘There’s something I would like you to work on. Can we get the voting thing fixed down there?’ It’s a mess. It’s embarrassing.
Watermark: Increase funding for education?
CC: Absolutely. You know what’s wonderful about this election? There’s going to be no difficulty differentiating between the candidates. I mean, I’m the opposite of Rick Scott. I really am.
As far as education funding goes, even though we went through worst recession in Florida’s history, I wouldn’t let education funding be cut. Rick Scott, on the other hand, whacked $1.3 billion from education in his first year, and then another $300 million from higher education in his second year. Unbelievable!
I said that the two areas we absolutely have to protect, as much as we humanly can, are education funding and funding for the most vulnerable in our society. In those areas, we are duty bound.
Watermark: What about charter schools? You’ve supported them in the past.
Yeah… I have concerns now, and I’ll tell you why. I co-sponsored the initial charter school bill in Florida, and I was proud to do so. I believe in competition. I think it’s generally a good thing. And I think the initial legislation was very good. But what I see today concerns me. Not that all of them are bad, but I see it becoming much more of a corporate endeavor than an educational endeavor. It’s troubling to me. I haven’t reached a final conclusion—I want to be honest—but I’m concerned.
Watermark: What about property insurance rates. We haven’t had a hurricane in something like nine years…
CC: Not since I was your governor.
Watermark: …and yet rates go up twenty percent a year.
CC: It’s a nightmare. Does that make sense to you? It’s nonsense.
Watermark: What can you do?
CC: If I get elected, a lot. When I was first elected governor in 2006, there were two horrific issues: property insurance and property taxes. They were a double whammy on Florida. And they’re both creeping back under this governor. There’s no reason for the rates to be what they are. None.
My strategy was to strengthen Citizens… the provider run by the government… so that it would be able to compete with the private companies that were charging practically whatever they wanted. So we pushed down the rates. I got the other members on the cabinet to support the Insurance Commissioner to stop the increases, beef up Citizens, consequently lower rates and stop the bleeding that customers were experiencing all over Florida. We did that. We even developed a web site—shopandcomparerates.com—so people could compare rates county by county.
Rick Scott gets elected, takes office and wants to defund or decouple—some stupid insurance term—policies at Citizens. Why? Because they’re not making a profit for anybody. Private companies, on the other hand, make a profit, and they contribute to his campaign. Citizens has never been stronger, its reserves have never been higher… we haven’t had a hurricane in nine years! Yet they’re creating a mythical crisis.
Watermark: I keep hearing something about reinsurance…
CC: It’s all BS. You’re smart. It’s nonsense. It’s gibberish. We’re running against nonsense, with common sense.
I love Florida. I want to protect her. And when I say I love Florida, I mean you. Really. I suffer when people hurt. I got an email this morning from a young lady who lost her job, doesn’t have health insurance, doesn’t know where to turn. She said, ‘I don’t know what to do. I have no money. I can’t pay for Christmas gifts for my children. I don’t know where to turn.’ It makes me sad, physically. It hurts me.
From our media partner Watermark