SSN on Facebook SSN on Twitter SSN on YouTube RSS Feed


Weekly Roundup: Deja Vu for Bill Nelson, Charlie Crist

November 14, 2013 - 6:00pm

In 2009, then-Gov. Charlie Crist was coy about whether he had any intention of running for the U.S. Senate in 2010. Crist repeatedly brushed away rumors that he would make a run at Washington, but never really ruled it out.

In the end, of course, Crist ran for the seat, appearing to upend the plans of fellow Republican and former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio. But the plan backfired amid the rise of the tea party movement, and the moderate Crist was ultimately forced to leave the party and run an independent campaign for Senate. That also failed.

Now, three years later, Crist has become a Democrat and is the one who reportedly faces the possibility of getting big-footed, in a sort of reverse version of Crist's move before the 2010 election. There were fresh indications this week that Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who has been coy about rumors that he would run for governor, is at least keeping the option open.

Meanwhile, money gushed into campaigns on both sides of the governor's race and into other campaigns up and down the ballot. And in a vote accompanied by far less doubt than any of those races, business leader and establishment fixture Marshall Criser picked up a tangible sign that he is almost certain to be the next chancellor of the State University System.


Of course, the 2010 race is not the only one that could echo into next year's contest if Nelson does try to take down Crist in the governor's race. A race two decades earlier would also be eerily reminiscent of the move.

In that case, Nelson was the victim when a more-powerful Democrat made a late charge into the race against unpopular Republican Gov. Bob Martinez.

When Martinez began to recover, leading Democrats grew concerned that the folksy Nelson was failing to connect with Florida voters. They convinced Lawton Chiles, the retired U.S. senator who had repeatedly declined to run, to enter the race.

Chiles won the nomination and the governor's mansion.

That was the story that Democrats floated as reports began dribbling out that Nelson is still very much thinking about making a bid for the office he first ran for almost a quarter of a century ago. Nelson has repeatedly said he has "no intention of running for governor," but intentions are malleable things in politics.

And whatever Nelson says his plans are, he appears to still be weighing whether to take on Crist and former Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich of Weston. Sources speaking on background told The News Service of Florida that Nelson's chief of staff, Pete Mitchell, has called some prominent Democrats and told them the 71-year-old Nelson is considering a bid.

The scenario that most Democrats lay out goes something like this: Crist doesn't catch fire or commits a mistake that threatens to undermine his chances to beat Scott. Nelson enters the race as a savior of sorts, defeating Crist in the primary and then trying to vanquish Scott and his projected $100 million campaign.

"I have said since last summer that Bill Nelson is saying 'no,' but he hasn't said, 'hell, no,'" said Screven Watson, former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. "If Charlie Crist stubs his toe, if he shows any weakness, [Nelson supporters] are going to pounce, and that pounce would be to fly to Washington to talk Bill Nelson into running."

But Steve Schale, a veteran of the Obama campaign who is now helping oversee Crist's effort, brushed off talk that much would come of the speculation. Instead, he said, Crist will prove to Democrats that he's the right candidate to take on Scott.

"Campaigns are like long novels," he said. "We're nine days into a 365-day campaign. There will be a lot of ups and downs, a lot of plot twists and turns before it's over."


Want to prove that the talk of a stumble and a Nelson entrance is less a subplot than a footnote? Raise a lot of money. And Crist's political committee, "Charlie Crist for Florida," quickly got to that task.

Since Crist formally entered the race this month, the committee has raised $872,000. The list of contributors includes several gold-letter names from the trial bar, with major donations coming in from the Coral Gables-based Grossman Roth law firm, which kicked in $250,000, and Sheldon Schlesinger and the Schlesinger Law Office in Fort Lauderdale, contributing a combined $50,000.

Venice retiree Rosalie Danbury, retired Coral Gables philanthropist Barbara Stiefel and Coral Gables attorney William Andrew Haggard also contributed six-figure amounts to the effort.

Scott's "Let's Get to Work" committee has countered in kind, raking in $3.9 million since the day Crist officially filed to run for governor. Health-care executive Mike Fernandez wrote a check for $1 million, by far the largest contribution, and business interests like the Florida Chamber of Commerce Alliance ($350,000) and Florida Power & Light ($250,000) also gave generously.

Next to those numbers, the totals announced by other state candidates -- including Rich -- for their October fundraising numbers seemed almost paltry.

For example, one of the top campaigns in terms of bringing in cash during October was the re-election effort of Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who raised "just" $90,850. Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, drew "only" $56,250.

One of the biggest fundraisers in the House was Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, who collected $41,425, while Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, took home $35,640.

No Cabinet member even topped $50,000.


As a former chairman of the Florida Chamber of Commerce and president of AT&T Florida, Criser knows something about political money. Now, he's close to getting a position in state government without the cost of television ads or a turnout effort.

On Tuesday, a Florida Board of Governors committee unanimously recommended Criser to the full board as the next chancellor for the State University System. Criser would oversee 12 institutions of higher education as the system has experienced political turbulence amid the drive to expand online education and Scott's quest to hold down tuition.

And the job is likely Criser's to lose. The board is expected to ratify the search committee's proposal at its regularly scheduled meeting next week.

"I've been extremely impressed by the caliber of all our chancellor candidates and am confident that our search committee has made a thoughtful, well-reasoned recommendation," Dean Colson, the chairman of the board, said in a prepared statement after the committee vote. "I appreciate all the hard work of the committee, and I know the rest of the Board of Governors looks forward to seeing Marshall next week."

Criser, the son of a former president of the University of Florida, would bring a history of business and political ties to the position. He has headed up AT&T's presence in Florida since 2005, and has had a role in government relations in Florida for AT&T or its state predecessor, BellSouth, off and on since 1989.

Criser also currently serves on the University of Florida board of trustees and as chairman of the Florida Council of 100, an influential business group.

During an interview with the committee ahead of its vote, Criser gave limited insights into his thinking on the major issues confronting higher education in Florida. On tuition, he highlighted concerns about affordability and underscored competition from private schools and new, online institutions while alluding to the idea of potentially charging different tuition rates for different programs.

"I believe that more funding for higher education in general, from whatever sources it can come from, is necessary in Florida," he said.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Marshall Criser was on the cusp of becoming chancellor of the State University System after a vote by a Florida Board of Governors search committee.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Keep Biloxi in Biloxi." -- Randolph Smith, a former Lutheran pastor from Pensacola, who called himself a compulsive gambler, at a Senate hearing concerning whether the state should consider an expansion of gambling.

Comments are now closed.



Live streaming of WBOB Talk Radio, a Sunshine State News Radio Partner.