Campaign Crawlers

Orange Blossom Madness

Hypocrisy lightens the empty race for Florida governor.

By 10.31.06

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TAMPA -- The gubernatorial campaign in Florida this year -- no surprise -- is the usual exchange of distortions, non-sequiturs, whoppers, irrelevancies, and other nonsense. (Odd word, gubernatorial. Makes it sound like Florida's top office is called the gubernator. Probably should be, so many gubers have run for it.) But a little hypocrisy can at least add entertainment value to an election where neither candidate has much prospect of affecting issues that matter.

Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist is a pleasant enough fellow with the right amount of white hair and a good suntan. He's a professional politician who's run for virtually every office in the state. Even won a few. He likely would have run for others had they just been there. I doubt that either Charlie or Florida voters remember when he last held a real job.

Now Charlie wants to be governor, and it looks like he will be. Republicans, oddly cursed with a thin bench in this red state, nominated him. And most polls show him comfortably ahead of the Democratic candidate, a U.S. Congressman from Tampa even less distinguished than Charlie.

Crist has a reputation as a law and order guy, even earning the sobriquet "Chain Gang Charlie" for his tough-on-criminals positions when he was a state legislator. Not a bad rep for a Republican politician in the reddest of red times. But now, fishing for votes among Democrats and independents in a not-so-strong Republican year, Charlie has apparently decided that a kinder, gentler approach is called for.

So tough-guy Charlie has discovered a deep sympathy for a group he's never been solicitous of before, to wit: criminals. Crist recently announced he's in favor of the automatic restoration of voting rights for felons who've completed their sentences.

This is peculiar (nothing new in Florida politics), as Charlie has been comfortable with Florida being one of the few states that do not automatically restore voting rights to felons after their sentences have been served. Comfortable through all those years as a state legislator and years as attorney general when he could have worked to do something about the matter. In fact, as recently as last summer he said all the state needed to do about the issue was to fine-tune the time-consuming hearing process through which felons who've managed to get and keep their lives between the ditches can get their rights restored.

But not all folks who have "paid their debt to society" plan to spend the rest of their lives in choir practice. Many felons in Florida, as elsewhere, are repeat offenders who've been allowed to plead to lesser offenses, much lesser in many cases, and plan to return to the family business as soon as they are no longer guests of the state. Exactly why folks who for a lifetime have been unable to obey the state's laws should be allowed to help choose the people who make and administer those laws is not something that Charlie has bothered to explain to this point.

THIS MATTER PROBABLY WON'T be a tiebreaker in the election. Florida voters are too stressed out about Hurricane-fueled homeowners insurance rates and taxes to worry much about whether or not crooks are voting. And there's no difference between the candidates. Democrat Jim Davis also favors automatic restoration, as do most in that party. But then you expect Democrats to want to make life comfortable for criminals. (This doesn't explain why Democrats, who controlled state politics in Florida from shortly after The Flood until the back half of the 1990s, did not do something for their felonious patrons during that time. But let it pass.)

The Democrats, remember, hammed it up in 2004 when Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood sent around a list of almost 50,000 felons who should not be allowed to vote. The list went out months ahead of the election and included a notification process and a procedure that would allow anyone who thought he was incorrectly included on that list to clear the matter up well before Election Day. But Democrats saw this for what it was, a vile Republican plot to keep Democratic voters, especially black Democratic voters, away from the polls. Democrats squalled. Republicans, as usual, capitulated. The list was history and who knows how many felons voted in 2004.

It's easy to see why Democrats want felons to vote. Almost 60 percent of the people on the infamous felons list in 2004 were Democrats, only about 20 percent Republicans. In our post-shame society, don't expect Democrats to show the slightest embarrassment that one of their most reliable voting blocs is criminals. Looks like Crist just wants to do some poaching in the criminal pond.

There may well be less here than meets the eye. (This is often the case with Charlie -- he reminds me of that great line from Art Buchwald who said long ago -- I paraphrase from memory, "When I was younger I wanted to go into politics myself, but I was never light enough to make the team.") Those whose family business is burglary or drug dealing or other branches of the criminal arts probably aren't that interested in participating in the pageant of democracy. We may well get more felons on the voting rolls no matter who Florida's next governor is. But how many will bother?

It's a good thing for both Crist, and Jim Davis that there's no such charge as felony hypocrisy. Or felony silliness. If there were this would raise serious questions about whether, under the present rules, either of them could vote for himself next Tuesday.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.