Florida’s reputation for notorious election antics was reinforced in the Oct. 15 gubernatorial debate between Republican Gov. Rick Scott and former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, now running as a Democrat. Apparently, Crist likes to have a fan blowing on him to ward off sweating, so he took one along. Scott’s camp claimed the fan was prohibited by the debate agreement, and the governor therefore refused to take the stage for seven minutes while Crist waited on stage and the moderators mused about how weird it was.
Most of the headlines after the debate myopically focused on the fan. But the evening’s oddball high jinks should not distract from the fact that the Scott-Crist race is the nation’s most expensive gubernatorial election (and one of the ugliest), with potentially far-reaching consequences.
For the past few months, shadowy interests have spent mountains of cash on televised slime, and the race is now dead even. With the candidates and their supporters devoting fortunes to savaging each other, a commonly expressed opinion in this state with a spotty (at best) record on elections is, Why bother to vote at all for guys like these? But it will be a terrible shame if Floridians throw up their hands in disgust and stay home from the polls. The state is confronting steep challenges regarding its environment, economy and educational system. The next four years will determine whether those challenges can be met — and the governor presiding over them will be critical to the outcomes.
Starkly different records
From all angles, the two candidates are very different. Scott, the incumbent, has been very unpopular, which hasn’t been helped by his personal awkwardness. A wealthy, self-funded tea party favorite, he has slashed taxes and budgets, cut nearly 12,000 public sector jobs and privatized everything from prison health care to swaths of public education. He refused federal money for a high-speed rail project and Medicaid expansion and sued the federal government over the Affordable Care Act, same-sex marriage and clean water rules. His corporate donors have benefited, while average wages and job stability for workers have declined. Scott has a tainted record in the private sector: While he was CEO of the giant hospital chain Columbia/HCA, it committed massive Medicare fraud, for which it paid a record fine of $1.7 billion — a well-known fact when he was elected in 2010.
Crist, on the other hand, was a popular, nice-guy Republican moderate who reached across the aisle during his governorship (from 2007 to 2011) and gratefully accepted federal stimulus money after the economy collapsed in 2008. He embraced President Barack Obama on a visit during the crisis — a photo op that his enemies in the GOP exploited predictably but effectively. In 2010 he ran for Senate as an independent and likely would have won if the Democrat (who stood no chance) had dropped out. Marco Rubio won instead, and Crist is now trying to get his old job back, this time with the not-quite-full embrace of the Democratic Party.
At the outset of the race, the charismatic Crist led Scott by a wide margin, but his lead has eroded under a barrage of ads labeling him an opportunist and flip-flopper (in part for switching parties). The Libertarian candidate in the race, Adrian Wylie, could draw a decisive share of votes and offers disgusted Florida residents a symbolic alternative. (The liberal Floridians who narrowly elected George W. Bush by default in 2000 by not voting or by voting for Ralph Nader instead of Al Gore now know how important individual actions can be in close elections. If in doubt, choose to vote; if in doubt about whom to vote for, choose the one who will do the least harm.)
This is not just another ho-hum, midterm, two-evils-so-why-bother kind of election.
The gubernatorial candidates show stark differences on the principal issues at stake: environmental threats, public education and widening inequality. On the first, Florida is extremely vulnerable to sea level rise and other effects of climate change. Most of the state is a long, low and narrow peninsula, wrapped in lovely beaches. Maps of projected futures wipe out the densely populated coastlines. Saltwater intrusion, fertilizer runoff, invasive species and other menaces must command the state’s attention. Scott, who has repeatedly said, “I am not a scientist,” to deflect questions about these issues, has overseen the destruction of natural springs, the sale of protected lands and the defunding of conservation. On the other hand, Crist’s record on environmental issues was pretty good. He advanced Everglades restoration, protected endangered turtles and manatees, made professional appointments to environmental positions and boards and is endorsed by the Sierra Club. Unlike Scott, Crist is a lifelong Floridian who plausibly wants to preserve the state’s natural resources.
Florida is facing a schools crisis as well. The state was an early adopter of high-stakes testing and charter-school expansion. Today in addition to radically changing classroom teaching and teacher evaluations, privatization and testing have opened myriad opportunities for public funds to transfer to private profit. Adding to the crunch, Scott drastically cut education funding in his first year in office — cuts that he partially restored as his popularity dropped and re-election time neared. Florida remains near the bottom nationally in per pupil spending, well below levels during the Crist administration. Crist has pledged to restore the cuts and has the support of the teachers’ union.
Their opposing positions on the minimum wage, social spending and felons’ rights also present a clear-cut choice. Scott said the market should set the minimum wage; Crist said no one who works full time should live in poverty. When Crist was governor, he restored voting rights to 150,000 nonviolent felons who had served their sentences. Scott rescinded that order and made it much harder to win restoration. Scott’s unemployment benefits website has been dysfunctional for nearly a year, denying legitimate claims and making unemployed workers endure unreasonable waits for payments. Crist has promised to fix these and similar problems.
Staving off disaster
The likely winner of this tight race for Florida’s next governor cannot be forecast. Turnout on Nov. 4 will be decisive, and experiences at the polls are likely to be uneven. In 2012 an estimated 200,000 Floridians were unable to vote because of extraordinarily long lines in select precincts. It could have been much worse. After Scott took office in 2011 he signed off on a series of laws and practices aimed at voter suppression: restrictive voter ID requirements, severe limits on third-party registration, reinstated felon disenfranchisement, reduced early voting and voter roll purges of names resembling noncitizens’ and felons’. A nonagenarian World War II vet was informed he could not vote, mainly because of his Italian surname. Fortunately, most of these attempts were overturned in 2012 judicial decisions from suits brought by the League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union and other pro-democracy groups in Florida.
Florida is a decidedly purple state, but an overwhelmingly Republican legislature has been orchestrated through partisan redistricting. Voters will have to step up if they want to ensure that the next four years do not continue to take the state down a disastrous path. This is not just another ho-hum, midterm, two-evils-so-why-bother kind of election. No one should be fooled by the hilarious coverage of Crist’s fan and Scott’s empty lectern. There are important issues for voters to consider. And voters should realize that after the election, if Scott wins, he will have no further reason — no more elections — to soften his approach.