When Charlie Crist left the governor’s mansion in Florida, he was a Republican. Now, six years later, he’s trying to make his way back as a Democrat. But first he’ll have to clear the Democratic primary, and doing so will require building trust with Democratic voters and explaining his positions and decisions as a one-time radical Republican officeholder in the state.
In addition to the usual issues—from education to transportation—there’s a good chance that reckoning will include his support for the now-infamous “Stand Your Ground” law that was passed in 2005. Crist endorsed the law during his first run for governor (over the objections of other law enforcement officials), and never looked back, despite growing evidence of its problems and unequal application.
Not that this comes as a surprise. For much of his career, Crist was a bona fide crusader for gun rights. In 1998, he stood against an effort to require waiting periods and criminal background checks for gun purchases, hitting then-Gov. Lawton Chiles for trying to “disarm” the state’s “law-abiding citizens.” He denounced his 2006 primary opponent as “anti-gun,” and touted his long-connections to the National Rifle Association—as attorney general, he nominated former NRA President Marion P. Hammer to the state’s Women’s Hall of Fame.
What’s more, Crist appointed “NRA favorites” to the state supreme court, signed legislation that allowed 500,000 concealed weapons permit-holders to bring their guns to work, as long as they remained in their vehicles, and signed a bill that blocked lawmakers from touching a state trust fund that pays for licensing gun owners and processing concealed weapons. This record is so comprehensive that, in 2010, Politifact said it “had a hard time finding any instance where Crist refused to back gun rights.”
This pro-gun streak continued into his run for the Republican Senate nomination, where he blasted Marco Rubio for supporting background checks. Indeed, if there’s been one constant during his career as a GOP official, it’s his support for guns, which was consistently rewarded with an “A” or “A+” rating from the NRA.
Obviously, as a Democratic candidate for governor, he has shifted away from this categorical support for pro-gun measures. Still, the extent of his advocacy—both material and otherwise—is striking.
This isn’t a small thing. The Florida Democratic Party, like others in the South, is heavily African American, and “Stand Your Ground” is more than a salient issue for these voters—it’s vital, a matter of life and death. If Crist is going to make headway as a Democrat in the state, then he’ll have to show—without a doubt—that he’s absorbed the lessons of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis.
Yes, Crist has a reputation for the flip-flop. But this goes beyond a simple issue shift, to the core of his political persona. We’ll see what happens.