Celebrating 'Chain Gang Charlie' Anniversary Week

By: Nancy Smith | Posted: June 18, 2014 3:55 AM
Charlie Crist cartoon

Surely Charlie Crist's new friends will forgive the former chain gangster a momentary nostalgic lapse. After all, this is a favorite anniversary for him.

It was 19 years ago this week that a 37-year-old state Sen. Charlie Crist, who wrote the legislation reviving chain gangs, embarked with Corrections Secretary Harry Singletary on his famous 400-mile, fact-finding road trip to Alabama, Chain Gang Capital of the World.

Man, oh, man, those guys in Alabama did chain gangs right, didn't they, Charlie? Who on your 19th is going to deny you that glorious annual ritual of bringing out the whip and chains and dressing up strict like a real 'Bama overseer? I'll bet you look fabulous.

I Beg to Differ

Do you remember how Palm Beach Post writer Meg James captured it in her story of June 16, 1994? 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,'" she wrote. "The governor had autographed the cap: "To Sen. Chain Gang Charlie Crist, with warmest personal regards."

Kinda gives you happy shivers, doesn't it?

Yes, this is the week Chain Gang Charlie is back, and I don't think even the Democrats will hassle him about the racial overtones, the painful reminder of slavery in our history. After all, this tough-on-crime thing gave him his populist start. His new party should thank him for it. Floridians wanted an antidote to climbing crime stats in the '90s and Charlie leaned into the role. Didn't matter that he offended minorities, he reasoned, they don't vote. Besides, he could always take it back later when the wind shifted.

But, oh, how he loved that Chain Gang Charlie label. Anybody around Tallahassee at the time remembers.

In 1994 an Orlando Sentinel editor told me Charlie approached him with a big smile and asked, "'They call the governor Walkin' Lawton, but they call me Chain Gang Charlie. Which would you rather be called?'"

1994 Gainesville Sun oped cartoon

1994 Gainesville Sun Cartoon

So impressed was Charlie with Alabama's practice of chaining five prisoners together, he wanted to copy it in Florida. Singletary, Florida's first African-American corrections secretary, ultimately overruled him.

Singletary even explained it to Gov. Chiles: 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.

But what a blow to Charlie's ego. Never mind that Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center said if Florida had gone the Alabama route, the Law Center would have sued the Sunshine State, just as it did Alabama. Charlie never got over it.

Which is why this anniversary brings so much back. The wouldabeens and shouldabeens ... oh, my. 

This week Charlie doesn't have to daydream about his fearless crime-fighting days in secret. He can take that long walk down memory lane wearing a new, autographed cap from the governor of Alabama (I'm thinking he has the original enshrined in a back-lit display case). He can relish the feel of the shotgun under his arm, the happy sound of shackles clanking on blacktop, the sheer joy of seeing prisoners learning their lessons in leg irons.

This time he can even fantasize about his pals in prison -- Jim Greer, Scott Rothstein, Greg Eagle, all the jailhouse brigade boys. Better to imagine them chained together as forced labor under his control than writing those pesky tell-all books and coming back to haunt him as free men. Brrrr.

Thanks for the memories, Charlie. Now go enjoy yours.

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423.

Comments (7)

12:45PM JUN 18TH 2014
What a cool story & cartoon. LOL...LOL...LOL!!!! You guys are the best. If I was Charlie's mom & he told me he loved me, I wouldn't believe a word of it because I would know if the wind shifts he won't stick by me.
8:50AM JUN 18TH 2014
Wow, again, Mark. This article is really amazing. For how it slants Crist's tenure. The rest of us may recall that Crist also restored rights to over 30,000 ex-felons who had paid their dues. In comparison, in a call to the state parole commission (not the correct name) said they were still processing requests for restoration from 2004. Thousands of Floridians have served their, want to become productive citizens and cannot get their applications processed in a decade? How's that for fairness and efficiency under Scott. And it would not be a stretch to say that it was only 75 times pleading the 5th that stood between Scott and the chain gang.
2:32PM JUN 18TH 2014
It is my understanding that over 500 thousand exfelons have no basic civil rights, including the right to vote, thus they have no voice in the goverment that rules over them. Republicans have supported that unconstitutional action for decades as they fear they will all vote democrat. Nowheres in the US Constitution is such action allowed, yet the southern states demand it and the courts have allowed it. If goverment is allowed to take away any citizens rights then it cantake them away from them all, yea, including you. By allowing goverment to deny citizens the right to vote you cannot complain when they take your rights. Think of that when you yell about your 2nd Amendment rights. Goverment can take that away from everybody. And it will be the fault of those who allowed the taking of rights from exfelons!
10:18AM JUN 18TH 2014
yeah, sure he restored felons rights. AFTER he took them away with his barbarism. like this story says, the wind shifted.
Tom Bryson
8:48AM JUN 18TH 2014
The chain gang spectacle was Charlie's most creative and imaginative pandering effort. It could only be surpassed by becoming Governor as a Democrat.
6:45AM JUN 18TH 2014
Wow, the way this article is written it seems as though Nancy, or a close relative, served some time on a chain gang!
Nothing wrong with the chain gangs, Nancy, and in fact there should be more throughout the state. First, and foremost, these "gangs" serve the taxpayers by completing chores normally ignored. State highway shoulders having trash picked up, all the way to having them perform odd jobs again, normally ignored or overlooked.
Another good thing about these "gangs" is the fact that prisoners are actually WORKING instead of laying around their cells all day long without accomplishing a thing, and possibly getting into more trouble with other prisoners.
All in all, the only thing wrong about chain gangs is that county governments, for the most part, don't utilize prisoners to perform duties
in local areas. But, of course that would make it beneficial for taxpayers as well and we couldn't possibly allow that!
When (if) Charlie is elected I sincerely hope the chain gang system will be widened throughout the state, giving the taxpayers a break.
8:27AM JUN 18TH 2014
Mark, you full of it. Google the stories about our past. Charlie's chain gangs were not just a big racial slur. In the 1990's Florida had a choice: we could start down the road toward the proper funding of education and programs for the poor, or we could lock more people up and devise humiliating ways to publicly shame them. Charlie Crist's bill to make prisoners serve 85 percent of their sentences cost Florida taxpayers $1.5 billion to build the three new prisons so prison population could jump from 60,000 to 81,000. Implementing chain gangs cost half a billion all by itelf.

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