Charlie Crist is back — or at least he wants to be.
Once a preeminent presence in state politics, Crist said Tuesday that he’s again attempting to return to the office he held a decade ago: Florida governor.
Crist didn’t have the stage to himself, however.
At a Tallahassee news conference as Crist’s event was getting underway in St. Petersburg, state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried all but confirmed her own candidacy. Fried said it’s clear that Gov. Ron DeSantis “must be a one-term governor. And as the only statewide elected Democrat, it makes absolute sense for me to be running for governor. But today is not the day for me to be making this announcement.”
Crist, who has unofficially been running for months, formally announced his candidacy via video Tuesday morning — touting accomplishments from his previous term as governor and delivering scorching criticism of DeSantis — and later delivered a 14-minute speech in front of an array of windswept American and Florida flags in The Deuces, a center of the Black community in St. Petersburg.
“Florida should be a place where hard work is rewarded, justice is equal, and opportunity is right in front of you. That is a Florida for all, and that’s why I’m running for governor,” Crist said in the video.
“If we seize this moment, if we take this chance, if we focus on the things that unite us — we can create the Florida we know is possible. Piece by piece, brick by brick, we can build a Florida for all Floridians. We can create a society that values every person. We can break the fever of division and hatred that has afflicted our politics,” he said during the speech.
Now a Democrat, Crist was the state’s Republican governor from 2007 until 2011. He’s now a member of Congress from St. Petersburg, and running for the state’s top job requires him to forgo running for a fourth term.
Besides Fried, the only statewide Democrat in Florida, U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Central Florida — who gained national exposure as an impeachment manager during former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial and was considered as a running mate for President Joe Biden — may also run.
Like Fried, Demings sought to divert attention away from Crist on Tuesday. Demings released a campaign video, titled “Ready for the moment,” that included biographical background (crime fighting police chief) and several inspirational comments: “Success is not only about being prepared, it’s about opportunity,” “If you don’t like something, then you do something to change it,” “We have to have decisive, smart, strategic leaders,” and “Always work hard, stay focused and never grow tired of doing good.”
Whoever gets the nomination will face DeSantis, the Republican incumbent and likely 2024 candidate for his party’s presidential nomination. While publicly professing optimism, many Democrats believe DeSantis will be tough to beat. A Democrat hasn’t been elected governor of Florida since 1994.
Crist denounced the record DeSantis has built during his 28 months in office.
“Florida has a governor that’s only focused on his future, not yours. While COVID took the lives of 35,000 Floridians, DeSantis attacked doctors and scientists,” Crist said in the video. “DeSantis is stripping away your voting rights. He’s against a $15 minimum wage. He doesn’t believe in background checks for guns, doesn’t believe in a woman’s right to choose, doesn’t listen, doesn’t care. And unless you can write him a campaign check, you don’t exist.”
DeSantis has been making the case that his leadership created a COVID-19 success story in Florida.
Asked about Crist, DeSantis gave variations of the same answer at various official events on Tuesday. “You know I didn’t realize like you know it was like what party is he going to run in this time? I mean he’s lost as a Republican, independent, Democrat. But you know I looked up. He’s voting with Nancy Pelosi 100% of the time in Congress. I thought heck maybe he gives the Green Party a chance. He’s certainly votin’ that way,” he told reporters in Vero Beach.
Later, in Miami, DeSantis offered a more pointed reaction. “Any time there’s an open office somewhere you can bet someone like a Crist is probably going to be slithering around for it.”
Crist, 64, has already lost to the two other biggest names in Florida politics: U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and U.S. Sen. Rick Scott.
When Crist was the Republican governor, he was at one point seen as the sure Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in 2010. But he left the party when it became obvious he’d be defeated in the primary by Rubio and ran for the Senate as an independent/no-party affiliation candidate. Rubio won, finishing 19.2 percentage points ahead of Crist, who came in second in a three-way race.
By 2014, Crist was a Democrat, and he challenged then-Gov. Rick Scott for re-election. Scott won, finishing 1 percentage point ahead of Crist.
Scott, now a U.S. senator, wrote Tuesday on Twitter that Floridians should “take a trip down memory lane” so they can “see what ACTUALLY happened when” Crist was governor. The message was echoed in a short video from Scott’s political committee calling Crist a “slick politician, lousy governor.”
In 2016, Crist won the first of his three terms in the House as a Democrat. Running for governor also would avoid a potentially more difficult re-election campaign for the House. Republicans who control state government will be redrawing district boundaries before the 2022 elections, and Crist could find himself in a district with many more Republicans. Fried said she thought it made more sense for Crist to stay in Congress. “But certainly today is Charlie’s day, and I wish him the best of luck.”
Earlier in his career, Crist was a Republican state senator, education commissioner and attorney general.
His transformation away from the Republican Party began in February 2009 when Crist, then the governor, hugged Barack Obama when the new Democratic president visited the state. With the rise of the tea party movement and conservative populism, many Republicans began regarding him as a pariah. Crist’s announcement video includes a video clip of praise from Obama.
It would be hard to overstate how much people who have been active for years in Florida Republican politics came to despise Crist — something that predated the rise of the kind of confrontational politics encouraged by former President Donald Trump.
When Crist ran for the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, he was denounced by George LeMieux, one of his closest, long-time associates, as an opportunist with no principles who had “changed positions so much that he’s unrecognizable.”
LeMieux, a former Broward Republican chairman, had been Crist’s deputy attorney general and was so essential to his successful 2006 gubernatorial campaign that he dubbed LeMieux the “maestro.” Crist later appointed LeMieux to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy.
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Still, Crist is a formidable top-tier candidate. He knows better than anyone the rigors of a high profile, expensive campaign for a major office. And he’s personable on the campaign trail, with a gift for a personal style of politics matched by few politicians in the modern era, with the exception of former President Bill Clinton.
The Aug. 23, 2022, Democratic primary is less than 16 months away. Afterwards, Fried said, “you will see a united Democratic Party.”