Charlie Crist, running for governor again, brings trademark expressions of concern and empathy to South Florida

The issues were a little different — updated for 2021 — but the messenger, and his expressions of concern and empathy, were vintage Charlie Crist.

Once again running for governor, Crist was back on the campaign trail, holding two in a series of statewide small-group gatherings in Lauderhill and West Palm Beach.

Ostensibly the purpose was for Crist to offer his views on the new state voting law signed last month by Gov. Ron DeSantis — “horrible” and “draconian,” Crist declared — and to hear concerns and strategies from political, religious and community leaders.

They were mostly opportunities for Crist, the Democratic congressman from St. Petersburg, former Republican governor, and unsuccessful 2014 Democratic nominee for governor, to emphasize that he’s ready to lead.

He did it in Crist style.

“I’m not talking about right versus left. This stuff to me is right versus wrong,” Crist said, repeating a line he’s used in previous campaigns.

Before beginning the event in West Palm Beach, he called for moment of silence to commemorate the people killed in a shooting at a Publix in Royal Palm Beach.

Otherwise, he offered Crist-style sunny optimism that things will get better in Florida if everyone gets out to vote. He hit at Republican DeSantis, without ever mentioning his name, and he never said anything that in any way acknowledged he has a formidable opponent in the Democratic primary for governor, state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. His comments suggesting he’s thinking only about the November 2022 election.

Charlie Crist, candidate for governor of Florida, hugs Ana Anselmo following a roundtable to discuss voting rights at Lallos Restaurant in Lauderhill on June 10, 2021. Anselmo pressed Crist, telling him people need reasons to vote for Democrats when volunteers go door-to-door.

Charlie Crist, candidate for governor of Florida, hugs Ana Anselmo following a roundtable to discuss voting rights at Lallos Restaurant in Lauderhill on June 10, 2021. Anselmo pressed Crist, telling him people need reasons to vote for Democrats when volunteers go door-to-door. (Amy Beth Bennett / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Florida is a worse place with DeSantis in charge, Crist said, with the state making it more difficult to vote and DeSantis doing things like marking the start of LGBT Pride Month by signing legislation keeping transgender girls and women out of high school and college sports, vetoing money for mental health services for survivors of the Pulse nightclub massacre, and the state Transportation Department objecting to decorating bridges with rainbow pride colors.

“We have to be guided to that place where we understand how important it is that the opponent, the current governor [DeSantis], is shining a light on what that is all about, right? I mean he’s not making it very hard to see. It’s not like it’s hiding behind a cloud somewhere. It’s out on full display,” Crist said. “What country are we living in? We’re living in the United States of America.”

It was reminiscent of the message he delivered against then-Gov. Rick Scott, when Crist had become a Democrat and challenged the Republican governor for re-election.

Crist continued Thursday in trademark style: “We’re a good state and you’re good people. I’m doing it for you. Honest to God.” He urged one woman at the roundtable to call him “just Charlie.”

Danny Finkelstein, a Democrat from Plantation, was one of the 11 people who sat at a table with Crist at a Lauderhill restaurant. “He reminded me of Bill Clinton. His demeanor is of a really good personal listener.”

Crist lambasted the DeSantis-signed law that makes it harder for some people in Florida to vote and said he hopes its provisions are overturned in the courts.

He painted DeSantis as someone who is “intentionally try[ing] to suppress the ability to vote in free, fair and open elections” and pointed to the governor’s own boasts immediately after the 2020 election was conducted in Florida without problems.

After former President Donald Trump started pushing the false narrative that the only way President Joe Biden won was because of widespread voter fraud, DeSantis changed course and said Florida voting laws need to be changed to prevent future problems.

The truth, Crist said, is “they’re afraid” of what the majority of voters will do if they participate, so Republicans are trying to make it more difficult to vote. He called it “anti-democracy” and “anti-American.”

Crist related the importance of voting to a range of policy issues, especially affecting minority communities.

He said that it was more difficult for people in inner-city communities with many minority residents to access vaccines than other people because they didn’t have the same kind of access to supermarket pharmacies as people who are better off. He pointed a finger of blame at DeSantis.

If Democrats don’t vote, or are prevented from doing so, the people who get elected siphon funding away from public schools, he said.

And a $15-an-hour minimum wage is something that doesn’t happen without Democrats voting, Crist said. In 2020 Florida voters passed a referendum to gradually increase the minimum wage to $15, at the same time they voted to re-elect Trump.

Crist touted his own record, as the Republican governor from 2007 to 2011, at restoration of voting rights for 155,000 people convicted of crimes who’d served their sentences. Voters later passed automatic restoration, but that has been hobbled by restrictions imposed by Republicans who currently control state government.

The 11 people at the Lauderhill roundtable were invited guests.

But they weren’t all Crist supporters, at least not yet.

Jasmen Rogers, a millennial who unsuccessfully ran for state representative in 2020, said many younger voters need some real, concrete reasons to vote to overcome the reaction, “Vote for what? What is going to change?”

Rogers said Crist needed to give people a reason to vote for him. And, she demanded to know, when “Crist for governor” signs would be available in Creole. “We’ll get some Creole signs. Don’t worry,” he said. “We’re not perfect. But I’m here to learn.” (Outside the restaurant, there was a Spanish campaign sign “Crist Gobernador,” it said. “Florida Para Todos.”)

Ana Anselmo of Miramar also told Crist that people need reasons to vote for Democrats when volunteers go door-to-door. She told Crist she was motivated to become a citizen by President Barack Obama and motivated to become an activist because of Trump. She’s co-leader of the progressive group Broward for Progress.

Laurie Woodward Garcia of Miramar, the other co-leader of Broward for Progress, said she won’t make up her mind “for quite a while. It’s important to learn as much as I can about the candidates.”

Karen Black-Barron, a Democrat Lauderdale Lakes, said she’s “essentially” supporting Crist, but isn’t 100% sure. “I’ve supported him before, as well as my family.”

Her major consideration is choosing a Democrat who has the best chance of winning in November of 2022.

Mindy Koch has no doubt that’s Crist.

”I am supporting Charlie Crist because he’s fair, imminently honest. He cares about the people of Florida more than anybody I have ever met. I think he’ll do great things for Florida,” said Koch, chairwoman of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party’s Legislative Committee.

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She said Fried “probably has a pretty good chance” against DeSantis but Crist “has a better chance. His name recognition — people know him.” Koch is more optimistic than many Democrats, who see DeSantis as likely to win re-election. “With all of us behind [Crist], we could very well win this.”

The emcee of the roundtable of the voting rights roundtable, Neil Blackmon, a lawyer who ran voter protection efforts in Broward for the Biden campaign, said he hasn’t made up his mind between Crist and Fried. He went to school with Fried, he said.

Ramanie Perera of a Plantation Democrat, said she’s leaning in favor of Crist, but wants to hear from other candidates. Her husband, she said, is a big Crist fan.

She said Crist could have an advantage because he’s someone who might be able to appeal to moderate voters, not just more liberal Democrats. She said that’s probably the only way for a Democrat to win a statewide election in Florida, which Parera sees as “a hard red state. I don’t see this as a swing state.”

Staff writer Skyler Swisher contributed to this report.

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