U.S. Rep. David Jolly and former governor Charlie Crist duked it out in a fierce debate Monday evening at the Palladium in St. Petersburg, setting the stage for what is destined to be the hottest congressional race in 2016.
From the start, the first debate between the two was heated. Moderators jumped right into the meat of the Congressional District 13 race, and the candidates covered nearly every topic under the sun.
The debate began with a bang, with Jolly accusing Crist of being an opportunist for waiting to declare he would run for the seat until the congressional districts had been hammered out.
Last year, Crist’s wife bought a house in St. Pete Beach, when congressional lines were still uncertain, an uncanny purchase Jolly was quick to point out.
“My wife bought that house!” Crist told the crowd.
The house was put up on the market this summer.
Jolly was also quick to dig in to Crist’s former nickname as “Chain Gang Charlie,” referring to the name Crist received as Florida’s Attorney General for being tough on crime and putting prison inmates in leg irons on roadsides. Jolly pointed to the instance where Crist looked along at African Americans shackled alongside a road in Alabama, feeling inspired to implement the same punishment in Florida.
“I see justice,” Crist said at the time. “I see justice being done.”
Crist rejected the chain gang was ever about race, instead saying the shackling of prisoners was a result of being tough on crime.
“For you to suggest this had anything to do with race is appalling ” Crist said. “The only concern I had was for the citizens of Florida.”
So the debate continued, a whirlwind, hour-long dizzying frenzy, covering everything from Zika to flip-flopping, Donald Trump, Social Security and Syria.
The two candidates, Jolly and Crist, are polar opposites in some respects. Jolly is a relative political newcomer, only having been in office since 2014, while Crist has held various offices throughout the state of Florida for the last 25 years, serving as governor from 2007-2011.
Both candidates stuck to their positions, choosing to talk about their own stances on issues like fundraising in Washington while working on Capitol Hill. This topic is a favorite of Jolly’s, since he introduced the Stop Act to ban members of Congress from personally asking for money.
Crist, on the other hand, loves to fundraise, and has been successful raising money throughout the entirety of his political career.
“You are a professional fundraiser,” Jolly said. “It’s what you do well.”
The two agreed there needed to be work done in Washington, but didn’t agree on exactly what a member of Congress would do on a variety of issues.
When it came to Syria, Rep. Jolly disagreed with the Obama administration’s handling of the situation, criticizing the president for a “weakness” in leadership and on foreign policy.
Crist, meanwhile, said Obama had the right idea on handling Syria, disagreeing with a “boots on the ground approach.”
The two frequently talked over one another. Jolly said he would not endorse Trump and probably wouldn't vote for him (a position he repeated after Sunshine State News first published his stance), while the former Florida governor held fast to Democratic candidates.
“I am proud of Hillary Clinton. I think she’s been a very good secretary of state, a very good senator from the state of New York," Crist said. "The thing I like most about her is I believe she is steady, I believe that she is strong, I believe that she is honest, and I look forward to voting for her."
That line prompted roaring laughter from the crowd.
Jolly painted Crist as a flip-flopper and someone who saw the opportunity to capitalize on a district which tends to favor Democrats.
“Just because you’ve been a member of both parties doesn’t make you bipartisan,” he told Crist.
The former Florida governor played to emotions frequently throughout the evening, harping on his steadfast values of “trustworthiness,” and “being decent to others.”
“Those are values that I hold and that I’ve always had,” Crist said, recalling how President Ronald Reagan was at one point a Democrat who later became a Republican.
Jolly said he simply wants to serve the people of Pinellas County and doesn’t necessarily have any intentions of being a lifetime politician in Washington.
"I'm not in this to build a political career,” he explained. “That's the difference between Charlie and I."
The CD13 race is one of the most competitive races in the country. The district is primarily Democratic, but polling has suggested a tight race between the two candidates.