David Jolly and Charlie Crist went at each other hard for close to an hour in their first debate for Florida’s 13th Congressional District race at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg Monday night.
It was good theater, and for those observing the event that was broadcast live on WTSP-10 News, the differences in the candidate’s positions were relatively stark and distinct.
Although the district is supposedly solidly Democratic after redistricting, Jolly would appear to be in fairly decent shape some seven weeks before Election Day. Although he is being out-fundraised, a St. Pete Polls survey released Monday (which did not include cellphones) had Jolly narrowly leading Crist, 46 percent to 43 percent. Jolly also polled better regarding favorability rankings with a 54/25 percent favorable to unfavorable rating. Crist was listed at 45/45.
The candidates clashed throughout the evening, with some of the fiercest sparks emanating from Crist’s decision to talk about the environmental crisis that has led the city of St. Petersburg to release 151 million gallons of sewage into the streets, as well as Boca Ciega Bay and Tampa Bay.
“What I don’t understand, is why our member of Congress, our representative of Pinellas County, the epicenter of this problem, isn’t advocating day after day after day for federal emergency help to get this cleaned up,” Crist said. “Our country has done this for Flint (Michigan). Why can’t we do it for Pinellas County?”
Jolly responded by getting in a dig in at St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, exciting the GOP partisans in the hall.
“Because the mayor who’s endorsed you who oversaw this catastrophe did not ask for it,” Jolly responded, getting a loud round of applause.
“If you have to be asked for help while the people in your district are suffering, something’s wrong,” Crist replied, getting almost as loud a reaction.
Jolly again blamed Kriseman for not standing up and said he’d be “happy” to work for the county as he has done for other cities in the district.
“Then why haven’t you done it?” Crist interrupted, keeping his foot on the gas. “Do you need an invitation to serve?” which generated the loudest cheer in the exchange. Crist said if he were in Congress, he’d at least be talking about the issue.
There were several other sharp conflicts throughout the evening, which actually began on the second question when co-moderator Mark Rivera asked the candidates were OK with permitting a woman infected with the Zika virus obtain an abortion.
Jolly, who is pro-life, said that he did believe in exceptions for abortion when it came to a woman’s health situation. After Crist had said he was proudly pro-choice, Jolly pounced.
“You were pro-choice, then you were pro-life, then you were pro-choice,” the Indian Shores Republican said. “As a Republican, when you had a chance to serve when you were in office you told the AP in 2009 that you would have supported an abortion ban in the state of Florida. It was only after you switched parties that you switched your position. This was not a matter of conviction for you; it was for political convenience.”
Both candidates came in well prepared.
Crist was more vulnerable, having switched political parties beginning in 2010, when he left the GOP to become an independent while running for the U.S. Senate seat, before making the complete switch to the Democratic Party in late 2012. But he took the offensive in explanation his ideological wanderlust, saying, “it’s not a sin.”
“If the values of the party at the time don’t comport with how you were raised by your family, I think you have a duty to yourself and your God, to do what you think is right, and represent the principals and values that you share, those of decency, doing unto others, doing what’s right for the people that you want to serve, and that’s why I’m a Democrat today and I’m proud of it,” Crist said, eliciting a hearty cheer from the audience.
Crist inadvertently provided the biggest laughs of the evening when he engaged with Jolly about how each candidate found themselves running in the CD 13 contest. Jolly painted his move as noble, and not political.
“Mr. Crist got into this race because the lines have changed,” he said. “I got into this race despite the fact that the lines had changed.”
Crist said he got into the contest only after the lines had changed because the new district included where he lived in downtown St. Pete.
Jolly fired back, “You bought a house in the district in St. Pete Beach that you later sold.”
Not true, Crist insisted. “My wife bought that house,” he said, which while factually accurate, didn’t pass the smell test with the crowd.
When it came for the time for the candidates to ask each other a question, Crist attempted to play the statesman, declining to offer a gotcha question to his Republican rival.
Jolly wasn’t about to let the opportunity go to waste.
Citing a Sarasota-Herald Tribune story, Jolly referred to Crist’s former life when he was known as being tough on crime “Chain-Gang Charlie” of the mid-1990s, when being tough on crime was de rigueur for conservative lawmakers. Jolly went into extensive detail about a Crist visit to Alabama, where he stood over black prisoners to say such a program would be good for Florida.
Crist appeared mortified by the story and chastised Jolly for getting racial.
“I’m embarrassed you’d say that about a fellow Floridian,” Crist said.
When each candidate was asked where they differed from their political party, Crist mentioned the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which does place him opposite Barack Obama and the platform of the Democratic National Committee, but safely with the growing mainstream of Democrats who oppose it, like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
Jolly went a little loftier, saying that much of his political persona is a challenge to party leadership on issues like marriage equality, climate science, and his STOP Act, which would ban federal officeholders from personally soliciting campaign contributions.
“Look, in three years I’ve tried to change politics at great political risk,” he said. “And I think I continue to put Pinellas over Washington politics.”
Crist said at one point that Jolly lobbied for the privatization of Social Security, a charge the former D.C. lobbyist denied. “Well, you registered to lobby for it,” Crist said. Jolly did say Crist had endorsed his legislation to end taxation of Social Security.
Jolly showed off his preparation when he attempted to bust Crist regarding his support for raising the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour. He said Crist opposed the proposal when he served as a board member of Enterprise Florida in 2004 (that’s when Floridians voted to raise the minimum wage as a constitutional amendment).
To his credit, co-moderator Adam Smith took 45 minutes before asking whether Jolly had finally “gotten there” yet on whether or not he’ll support his party’s standard-bearer in November, Donald Trump.
“I’m not there with Mr. Trump,” Jolly said, his stock answer when asked the question.
After Smith had challenged him, Jolly said he wasn’t sure he ever would get there in November.
Crist had no such moral compunction when speaking affirmatively for Hillary Clinton, though he did elicit giggles when he said, “I believe that she is steady. I believe that she is strong. I believe that she is honest.”
Among those seen in the crowd were former St. Pete Mayor Rick Baker, SD 19 Democratic candidate Augie Ribeiro, and St. Petersburg City Councilman Karl Nurse.