TAMPA -- Florida's former RINO Governor Charlie Crist, who shed his Republican disguise in April to seek a U.S. Senate seat as an independent, has shaken both sides of the money tree to great effect. But it's not clear now if he'll get away with it. A Florida Republican legislator and attorney in Naples is suing Crist in an attempt to get Crist to, as we phrase it in the South, do right.
When Crist filed for the Senate seat in the spring of 2009 as a Republican he was the prohibitive favorite to win the seat and the establishment Republican money rolled in, much of it from out of state. The Republican National Senatorial Committee, Senator John Cornyn of Texas commander in chief, endorsed Crist and had a hefty check in the mail almost before Crist had descended the podium he used to announce his candidacy.
Crist collected in the neighborhood of $10 million from Republicans before he left the Republican Party in April rather than face sure defeat at the hands of conservative former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio in the Republican primary. Now Crist is hauling in money from establishment Democratic donors who don't think either of the Democrats in the Senate race have much of a chance in November (they don't) and said donors would rather have the squishy Crist in the Senate rather than the principled conservative Rubio. Oddly, federal election law does not prohibit a de facto Democratic candidate from running for office on Republican money. The suit, filed in Florida Circuit Court in Collier County, claims Florida law does and that Republicans who contributed to Crist have been damaged.
The honorable thing for Crist to do of course would be to return the money of folks who contributed to him in hopes he would become the next Republican Senator from Florida, not so that he could run against the Republican candidate, which he's doing. But Crist has only the most casual relationship with the honorable thing, at least in politics.
Shortly after Crist left the Republican Party (after promising countless times he would not do so and banking the checks that came in on that promise), he said he would give the Republican money back. But then Crist, who holds the career and single-season NCAA records for changing his mind on issues, changed his mind about this as well. He said the donors had given the money for a good cause, and his election remains a good cause. (Charlie's political career has always been the only cause he's truly cared about.) So he's keeping the Republican money to run against the Republican in the race.
Not so fast, says Florida State Representative Tom Grady, who has filed a class-action suit demanding that Crist return campaign contributions made by Republicans to his campaign before he bailed. In the words of the suit, "Offering to receive, and accepting, the Republican contributions of his campaign for Senate as a Republican candidate, and then actually running against the Republican candidate without refunding the Republican contributions is not right."
Well, duh. The practice is obviously underhanded. But the suit will let us know if there is any legal reason to compel Crist to come clean. At any rate, it should lead to some "free media" that Crist would as soon not have.
The suit uses some language that Crist used recently on Fox News with Greta Van Susteren, "Crist has made it clear that he believes a candidate should not say one thing and do another. The parties agree with Crist." Good luck making all candidates hew that line.
Grady, a securities fraud lawyer in his day job and a former member of the Crist leadership team in Southwest Florida before Crist went rogue, is reluctant to talk about the suit, saying he prefers to allow the complaint to speak for itself. But he did tell me that while federal election law does not oblige candidates to return campaign contributions if they switch parties, he believes Florida Common Law does.
A spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida says RPOF is not a party to the suit, but they agree Crist should return money to Republicans who gave to him in hopes he would be the next Republican Senator from Florida.
"We're appalled that it has had to come to this," said RPOF spokesman Katie Betta. "He should have already returned those contributions. The governor should do the right thing now and return the money. He promised time and time again that he would run as a Republican, and Republicans contributed to him on the understanding that he would run as a Republican. He should return all the contributions from Republicans. But at least he should have returned the money of those who asked for it back."
Rubio campaign communications director Alex Burgos said the campaign is not involved in the suit but is obviously sympathetic to its purposes.
"This is just another example of Charlie Crist's willingness to say and do anything to win this election," Burgos said. "He's breaking promises to Republicans who donated to him in good faith on the understanding that he would carry the Republican banner. It's all of an over-all pattern with the rest of his flip-flops. I think voters will see through this."
And this isn't just a matter of labeling. Crist isn't running to be the same guy he was last spring only without the R after his name. He's also changed his positions on the major issues of the day from right to left. The banner he's now carrying, without declaring it, is the banner of the left agenda of the Democratic Party. It seems only fair to Tom Grady, and to countless angry Florida Republicans, that people with a D after their names finance this crusade.
The Crist campaign failed to return calls and emails requesting comment on the suit and the issue.