The Crist Conundrum

Leave it to Bill Maher to sum up Charlie Crist’s perpetual reinvention — from conservative Republican to populist, pro-gay, pro-pot, pro-choice Democrat — so succinctly: “You like being in office,” the HBO host told Florida’s once and perhaps future governor on last week’s Real Time. “You don’t care how you get there.”
“I like serving,” was all Crist could muster in response.
It was a mostly sympathetic interview — Crist there to promote his election-year book, The Party’s Over: How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat, Maher using Crist to buttress his argument that Republicans have gone around the bend — but Maher got it exactly right. Charlie Crist’s constituency is, and has always been, Charlie Crist. He’s as opportunistic and self-serving as Republicans now claim, and was so back when Democrats were the ones calling him an empty suit.
All that’s changed is the label — and the tribe rallying behind it.
It’s hardly been remarkable to watch Crist perform policy 180s in service of political gain — a zebra can hardly change his stripes. What is amazing is the degree to which the state’s Democrats, especially elites, have rallied around him.
Imagine how different Democrats’ reaction would have been, if Crist still had an “R” behind his name, to last week’s news that major Crist contributor Scott Rothstein — currently facing decades behind bars for masterminding a Ponzi scheme — accused the former governor of, basically, selling judgeships while in office. Instead of demanding investigations, Crist supporter Dan Gelber (a former Democratic attorney general candidate) called Rothstein the “Hannibal Lecter of liars.”
Rothstein is a con man, and shouldn’t be taken at his word. But we should also remember that perhaps the most notorious corruption scandal in state history, at least in recent memory, occurred under Crist’s watch — and his guy was at the center of it. In 2013, Jim Greer, the GOP state party leader while Crist was governor, pleaded guilty to four counts of theft and one count of money laundering — most notably, creating a company, Victory Strategies, to which he then secretly funneled nearly $200,000 in contracts. (He was last seen working at an Orlando La-Z-Boy for $8 an hour as part of a work-release program.) In depositions and interviews taken before his plea bargain — in which he also accused top Republican lawmakers, including state Sen. John Thrasher, of racism, intentional voter suppression, radicalism and general corruption — Greer insisted Crist knew all about, and signed off on, his Victory Strategies scheme. Crist denied it, of course.
The Greer scandal would have offered Democrats a wondrous opportunity to take the pine to Tallahassee’s sleazy Republican machine, now headed as it is by an alleged Medicare-scamming scoundrel, were Crist not so tainted by it.
This isn’t in any way an apologia for Rick Scott, a charlatan for whom I couldn’t muster an ounce of sympathy for riches beyond the dreams of avarice. But it is a stunning indication of how weak and feckless and desperate the state party is, that it’s acquiescing Crist’s ambitions with barely a murmur of protest.