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Martin Dyckman: Who is the real Crist — and do voters care?

The sight of Charlie Crist running for governor as a Democrat should not startle anyone old enough to remember that Richard Nixon went to China and began successful strategic arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union.

For such an arch Cold Warrior to come to terms with common sense and necessity was in one of the grand traditions of American politics. Here, people are free to change their minds and public positions.  The pertinent question, when they do, is whether their reasons are good ones.

The Republican Party itself was built by former Whigs, including Abraham Lincoln, who left their party because it was incapable of opposing slavery.

In the South, regrettably, that party’s current hegemony owes largely to the time the Democrats bucked their Southern senators to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In office and in the voting booth, other Southern Democrats defected en masse, precisely as President Lyndon Johnson had anticipated.

Florida’s two greatest governors, LeRoy Collins and Reubin Askew,  both renounced strongly held views on substantial issues.

Collins was running for governor in 1954 when the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional. Collins immediately reiterated his support for what he called Florida’s “custom and law.”  His pupil-assignment legislation in 1956 delayed desegregation to a significant extent.  But he was not a racist. He understood that segregation was wrong, and before his term ended he would be saying so. He was afraid not of ending it, but of the disorder that might ensue.

As a senator, Askew had spoken against and helped to defeat a proposal to amend Florida’s Constitution to allow a corporate income tax.  As a candidate for governor, he was persuaded to listen to two young men who showed him how business lobbyists — the Legislature’s only information resource at that time — had been misleading them.  He made the corporate tax the cornerstone of his campaign and, on being elected, carried out his promise to enact it.

One of Florida’s lesser governors, Fuller Warren, had campaigned on a promise to veto a sales tax. On taking office, he saw that the state needed it desperately.

Florida’s first modern Republican Governor, Claude R. Kirk Jr., had promised tirelessly, “No new taxes.” Introduced to reality with his oath of office, Kirk eventually signed what at the time was the largest tax increase in Florida’s history.

So, where among those greater and lesser leaders stands the one whom I once nicknamed “Chain Gang Charlie”?

He earned that by seizing on the public’s concern over crime to pass what was a strongly symbolic but utterly unwise law to force the prison system to put inmates to work in public in chains, a practice that had been discarded in the 1940s as dangerous and costly.

Harry Singletary, the secretary of corrections at the time, restricted Charlie’s chain gangs to prison property out of the public’s view.

But as governor, this same man insisted on generously rewriting pardon board policy to automatically restore voting and employment rights to tens of thousands of non-violent ex-felons.

Which was the real Charlie Crist? The man exploiting public fears to enhance his reputation? Or the humane governor who respected voting as the most fundamental of American rights and obligations?

The answer can be inferred by how quickly his successor, Gov. Rick Scott, revoked that reform. The losers by his action would more likely be Democratic than Republican voters.

In comparing the two on that issue, it seems apparent which of them holds American values closer to his heart. Crist proved it again by extending early voting hours in 2008.

Politics is relativity in action, in much the same way as Albert Einstein defined it — as between a moment with your hand on a hot stove and an hour with a comely lady.

The Republicans have undertaken an expensive and unrelenting campaign to demonize Crist for his many inconsistencies.

My hunch is that it’s a losing strategy. Voters don’t care about yesterday. Their concern is for today and tomorrow. Their only rational choice is as to which candidate will make those days better for them.

Adam Smith, the political editor of the Tampa Bay Times, artfully refuted those who say Crist has no guiding principle. His core principle, Smith opined, is to do what he thinks the public wants.

That may not be leadership, as Collins or Askew would have defined it, but the Republicans will have a hard time persuading voters that their governor shouldn’t do what the public wants.

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