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Nancy Smith

Believe It: Charlie Crist Was Head to Toe About Racism

May 12, 2014 - 6:00pm

Most of the time, it's easy to be light and sassy about Charlie Crist. Frankly, on almost any occasion, he's good for a laugh.

But last week he finally said something I couldn't laugh and sass about. I tried, couldn't do it. You see, I remember Charlie. I remember how he was on the earliest, hungriest rungs of his career ladder. So when he told Fusion TV's Jorge Ramos that what drove him out of the Republican Party in 2010 was racism, I had to replay what I'd just seen twice. Did I hear correctly?

Charlie didn't leave the party, as Ramos prompted, because he was losing the U.S. Senate race to Marco Rubio?Nope.

He left because "... I couldn't be consistent with myself and my core beliefs and stay with a party that was so unfriendly toward the African-American president."

Consistent with himself and his core beliefs?

This issue is long gone. It's out of the papers now, I know. It should be out of my mind, too. But I can't let it go. Please indulge me.

What I remember of Charlie's "core beliefs" -- back when he was making a name for himself -- came along in 1995, in the tough-on-crime days, when he served in the Florida Senate.

Sen. Charlie Crist, a Republican lawyer from St. Petersburg, sponsored a chain gang law, the kind of law abandoned in Florida and most states decades earlier. Floridians were terrified of crime and Charlie decided that was the way he could be their champion.

Who did he come up against, but Harry K. Singletary, a Lawton Chiles appointee and Florida's first African-American corrections secretary. Singletary was Crist's reluctant partner in the endeavor.

Crist wanted inmates to be chained together, five at a time. En masse, they're more secure, less apt to attempt escape, he said. Besides, we don't want to go easy on them, they need to be taught a lesson.

Singletary countered that so many men lashed together is humiliating, puts them in danger on the highway and renders them inefficient to get any work done. Justice would still be served, he reasoned, if they were chained singly.

Singletary, 49 at the time, hated the idea of chain gangs. He kept it locked up inside, but he hated it, and hated having anything to do with Charlie Crist, until the day he died in 2010.

He had worked in the prison system for 26 years before he got the top job, remembered the sweat boxes and other harsh punishments -- recalled growing up in Tarpon Springs in the 1950s and early 1960s seeing inmates toiling on road crews or cutting down palmettos while leg irons dug into their skin. He knew people personally who had worked on chain gangs.

"This was a legislative initiative, and I can't substitute my personal opinions for the law," he told Meg James, a writer for the Palm Beach Post who traveled with Crist and Singletary 400 miles to the Limestone Correctional Institution in Alabama, to see how that state ran its chain gang program. Her story -- which is not available online -- was printed in the Post and in The Tuscaloosa News of June 16, 1995.

One black inmate, Alonzo Heuhlett, and other black inmates told James chain gangs smack too much of Alabama's days of slavery. "Nearly all of the shotgun-toting guards are white, and about 80 percent of the inmates on the chain gangs are black," he told her.

Frederick Simpson, another black inmate said, "It's just the idea of me being out here in chains, with the man standing on top of me with a shotgun. Why would any other state want to copy this?"

Didn't it bother Crist, standing next to Singletary who was visibly sickened, who saw the similarity between treatment in chain gangs and generations of slavery in America? "Crist said, coming to Alabama was further proof that crime-ridden Florida needs chain gangs," James wrote.

Crist said he wasn't concerned that some call it barbaric, or that working along the highway in shackles endangers prisoners' lives and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Too bad, he said. These are bad men.

"We're targeting criminals," Crist said. "Prison is not supposed to be fun ... We're talking about criminals who have victimized citizens throughout the state of Florida."

James wrote that at one point during the visit, Crist "strode out of Alabama Gov. Fob James Jr.'s office at the state Capitol in Montgomery, smiling and clutching ... a white canvas painter's cap emblazoned with "'ALABAMA CHAIN GANGS.'"

The governor had autographed the cap: "To Sen. Chain Gang Charlie Crist, with warmest personal regards."

Oh, yes, and to give some indication of Harry Singletary's character and thoughtfulness, this is what he said to writer Meg James, and how she ends her story:

"Everyone wants a silver bullet, and this is not the silver bullet. This is not the answer to the crime problem. We could have 45,000 people on chain gangs, but if people are still having babies at 13, if we're not educating folks or if there's not enough jobs, then we're still going to have problems. ..."

You might need to go back a little and acquaint yourself with the real Charlie Crist's core beliefs.

Ask yourself, if he was as agonized as he said he was over racism in the GOP, why did it take him so long to say so? Why did it take four years?

And, most of all, if Chain Gang Charlie really wants to talk about race, let him explainwhy he thought the institution of a chain gang in Florida was a good idea. Let himmake more statements about restoring the rights of former felons, now that he's seen the light.

Let's find out how come, if the GOP is all that prejudiced, he lost his 2010 Senate race to a party that voted for the Cuban guy -- clearly a demonstration of their antipathy toward minorities. And why don't we hear anything about African-American Kendrick Meek, a rising star in the Democratic Party four years ago, whom Charlie strong-armed out of the race and did his best to destroy?

Democrats don't have rising stars anymore, and it's easy to see why.

They have leaders who believe they are the sole selection body for all candidates. When did the Democratic establishment decide it no longer adheres to the democratic process and voters no longer have the right to choose for themselves? Are they so thin on the bench that they will continue to punt real progressive candidates like Nan Rich and Manuel Sykes, an African-American, to support non-Dems like Charlie Crist and Ed Jany?

Chain Gang Charlie didn't leave the party because of racism. But he doesn't care and the Democrats don't care. A lot of Florida voters will figure it out before long, if they haven't already.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423.

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