Celebrating 'Chain Gang Charlie' Anniversary Week
Around the State
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.
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?'"
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423.