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Daniel Tilson: The progressive push that Charlie Crist needs

 Florida Democratic Party leaders, staffers, grassroots activists, old-school community organizers, new-school social media mavens and assorted behind-the-scenes “bigwigs” all converged in Orlando last weekend for their annual statewide conference.

With so much yardage still to gain on electoral and policy-making playing fields dominated for so long by the GOP, Democrats arrived fired up and determined to make 2014 a winning season.

But for plenty of progressives observing (or ignoring) such insider enthusiasm from afar, serious questions and concerns remain.

For instance, how much forthright liberal vs. conservative “compare and contrast” boldness will we see in the campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination?

Former State Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, a lifelong progressive Democrat, has campaigned tirelessly as an announced candidate for 18 months and built a small, devoted base of grassroots support.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist, whose twisting-turning political “evolution” stands in stark contrast to the Rich history of ideological steadiness, has been campaigning in his own way for almost as long and officially joins the race on Monday.

That leaves progressive Democrats like me to balance ideological affinities vs. electoral realities. Rich’s policy positions are preferable, but Crist’s stellar political skills and high-powered connections are undeniable – as are his vetoes of controversial conservative GOP legislation when he was governor.

And I for one, while questioning how much expediency outweighs sincerity whenever he “evolves” on another issue, have evolved to the point where I no longer view Charlie Crist as an outright enemy of progressive values.

Enemy number one is of course Gov. Rick Scott. Whatever else happens with hoped-for Florida Democratic pickups in Congress and the Legislature, winning the governorship and the veto power that comes with it would be a super-sized victory.

To earn it, the Blue team will need unparalleled unity and grassroots enthusiasm. This means that core concerns of younger progressives and old-school liberals who drive local Democratic club activism must be openly expressed, explored and debated.

For starters, think about conservative economic policies preventing widespread, sustainable middle class recovery and regrowth in Florida. Think about a ridiculously rigged, regressive tax system leaning on sales taxes and usage fees from working folks, while maintaining huge loopholes so wealthy corporations and individuals can avoid paying their fair share.

Think about what the cronyism-riddled push toward for-profit privatization has done to destabilize our public school system, our prison system and more.

Think about how the gutting of longstanding Growth & Management regulations has diminished our state’s natural resources, and compromised the quality of life in so many suburban and rural communities statewide.

Pragmatic progressive solutions to problems like these deserve mainstream discussion and debate as part of the 2014 gubernatorial campaign, and the absence thereof would come at great risk to the Democratic brand.

That’s where liberal standard-bearer Nan Rich comes into play. Her speech at the Democratic conference last weekend gave little indication of readiness to push Crist into debating details of a pragmatic progressive platform.

For instance, rather than pointing to progressive tax reform legislation she fought for as Senate minority leader and reminding everyone that Crist supported an unfair system, she simply said Democrats should choose her “substance” over his “style”.

If the Rich campaign is to be competitive, civility and constructiveness cannot be confused with timidity. Her extreme long-shot chances only improve if she gets boldly specific in comparing-and-contrasting her steely progressivism to Crist’s still-fuzzy populism.

That way, even if she loses, she can still be the sharpening tool that helps Crist “evolve” his way to winning enough progressive votes to beat Scott next November.

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