Lawmakers learning to live with Crist's agreeable style

Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post

By S.V. Date
Published  January 21, 2007

TALLAHASSEE When Charlie Crist told Floridians he would be the people's governor, it might not have occurred to state legislators that they are people, too.

After eight years of a Republican governor who often had frosty relations with legislative leaders of his own party, lawmakers from both parties said they are still getting used to a GOP chief executive who they believe both likes and respects them.

"He might accept that some people might disagree with him," said Rep. Priscilla Taylor, D-West Palm Beach.

House Insurance Committee Chairman Rep. Ron Reagan, R-Sarasota, a strong supporter of former Gov. Jeb Bush, has been asked by Crist essentially to reverse course.

"Friendly, agreeable. It's a different style," Reagan said with a shrug. "I like them both. ... I think Charlie has the best interests of the state of Florida in his heart."

The differences go beyond glad-handing and effusive praise as opposed to a demand for party discipline.

Bush, legislators of both parties agreed, would have produced a 300-page bill with 70 different sections and would have told lawmakers that debate on 65 of those sections was off the table but that he was open to their suggestions on the remaining five.

Crist, by contrast, has walked the halls of the Capitol passing out single-page talking points explaining his top priorities, while leaving the details to legislators.

"He's been a terrific cheerleader, but he's been deferring to the legislature," said House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach. "I don't find fault with that. The last governor would have done the opposite."

Crist, while less confrontational than Bush, has not been shy about using pressure in different ways.

Whereas Bush was more likely to call lawmakers into his office and - if he thought it would be effective - verbally abuse them to help change their minds, Crist is far more likely to continue openly praising his opponents on an issue even as he engineers a way to put them on the defensive.

Last week, Crist arranged to meet with 160 Cuban-Americans from Hialeah to encourage them to pressure their lawmakers to reduce insurance premiums. The meeting, with the media invited, was scheduled at the same time as the House was in session - essentially forcing House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Coral Gables, who is of Cuban descent, to leave the dais to attend Crist's event.

"That was his choice," Crist said, but then with a smile allowed that Rubio really had little choice. "That's the point."

Criticism within the GOP

Crist also has made a point, at least so far on the issue of insurance, of empowering Democrats such as Gelber, who had been largely shut out under Bush.

"He didn't consult with me about policies. We had a more argumentative relationship," Gelber said of Bush. "He didn't look to us at all."

Crist calls Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller, who served with him in the Florida State University student government, "brilliant" and has relied on his information and proposals.

"Having been a legislator, I think sets a different tone in my mind," Crist said of his relationship with the legislative branch.

Crist's willingness to work with Democrats and his populist approach, however, has not found universal approval in his own party.

"He has a Ph.D. in demagoguery," said one Republican lawmaker who spoke privately.

And some Republicans said Crist's open style does not apply to everyone. Rep. Will Kendrick - a Democrat-turned-Republican from Carrabelle who has had years of disputes with Crist over the net-ban amendment - said it took him three weeks to get a meeting that lasted but four minutes. Crist supports the amendment and Kendrick opposes it.

Rep. Don Brown, R-DeFuniak Springs and a staunch opponent of Crist's attempts to force insurance premiums down, said he personally has seen little outreach from the new governor.

"He hasn't spoken to me," Brown said.

Fighting an old friend

Still, those views appear to be the minority, as Crist continues his honeymoon period.

"This is quite a sea change," said Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, who said Crist called him on his cellphone election night to tell him he looked forward to working with him. "That was quite a surprise. The only time Jeb ever called me on my cell was when he was lobbying us on ... medical malpractice."

That issue, like many Bush pushed hard in his eight years, involved a fight between one interest group and another - in that instance, doctors and trial lawyers.

Crist, in contrast, has picked as his first battle an issue that resonates more with average Floridians. And instead of lining up against a traditional opponent of Republicans such as lawyers or the teachers union, Crist is taking on a traditional friend of his party: the insurance industry.

He said he appreciates the irony and also appreciates its influence over the legislature.

"They are very good at what they do, to their credit," he said of insurance lobbyists. "That's a lot to fight. They are smart. They are generous. They are effective. And they are wrong."

Crist said his time in the legislature - he represented a St. Petersburg district in the state Senate from 1992 to 1998 - has made him wise to the "code" that lawmakers can use. When House leaders argue that one of his key proposals to let state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. compete with the private market should be deferred to the regular session so it can be better studied, Crist said he understands that bills are easily killed in the crush of regular session simply by being ignored - which is why he insisted it needs to be done now, during the special session.

He also recalled watching Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles push an initiative by using not only his office but the issue's popularity to his advantage. It was 1997 and Chiles was going around the state to drum up support for his plan to build more schools. The House speaker at the time was Republican Daniel Webster of Orlando, who like most in his party argued that there was no need for a special session on the matter. Chiles responded with a visit to a dramatically crowded school in Webster's own district. Weeks later, he was able to push the legislature to spend $3 billion for more schools.

Crist said he has used the lesson in his own handling of the insurance crisis.

"They want to go there anyway, in their heart of hearts," he said of lawmakers, once they understand the direction he wants to lead them. "It will help them help their own constituents. They're bright enough to see that."