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Weekly Roundup: Political Fights and Gun Rights

October 31, 2013 - 7:00pm

With a new fundraising law in place and the drama about Charlie Crist's plans all but over, the 2014 election campaign began in earnest this week.

Former Gov. Crist's long odyssey from Republican officeholder to independent Senate candidate to Democratic gubernatorial front-runner took another step toward completion. And Alex Sink, the former chief financial officer once seen as the Democrats' best hope for governor, geared up to run for Congress instead.

Meanwhile, the state's gun laws once again drew attention from Washington, D.C., and a sheriff in North Florida used a gun-rights defense to win acquittal on charges that he tried to cover up the release of a man arrested for toting a loaded gun.


Over the last several months, the worst kept secret in Florida politics has been that Crist, who once proudly proclaimed himself a Reagan Republican, would run for the state's top job as a member of the party of Obama. Crist made his candidacy official Friday when he filed for the office, with the formal announcement to follow Monday in St. Petersburg.

Already, Crist was laying the groundwork for his campaign: slashing attacks on Gov. Rick Scott, more in the spirit of disappointment than anger, and efforts to polish the charismatic persona that once earned Crist a spot on the vice presidential shortlist but has come under scathing attack from Republicans.

"Each voter should do what they feel in their heart. Men, women, gay, straight, black, white, young, old, it doesn't matter. They should vote for who they feel will fight for them the best, whoever it is," Crist told The News Service of Florida this week during a wide-ranging interview outside a downtown Starbucks not far from his waterfront condo in St. Petersburg.

Crist ticked off a list of particulars against Scott that ran the gamut from the governor's rejection of high-speed rail money to his education policies to Scott's oft-discussed tenure at the head of a company that paid $1.7 billion in fines and settlements to resolve accusations of Medicare and Medicaid fraud after he left the company.

"I don't know much about him that isn't ethically challenged," Crist said of Scott. "It troubles me that the leader of our state is not acting like a good servant. Being a good person starts with honesty and integrity. The notion that we've elected an individual who was the head of a company that had to pay the largest fine for fraud at the time in the history of our country is just mind-boggling."

Republicans, meanwhile, were gearing up to continue the political equivalent of a napalm attack against the former head of their party.

"He's not a serious person," said Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry. "He's not fit to govern. He's a campaigner. That's it. He's good-time Charlie."

The GOP was reportedly preparing to spend as much as $525,000 to start hammering that message home in ads -- just as soon as Crist announces on Monday.

Why did Crist wait until little more than a year before the race to file? No one was certain, but many had already pegged sometime around the first of November for his announcement. As of Friday, candidates for statewide office can now raise $3,000 per person, per election instead of $500.


When Sink bowed out of a potential race against Crist earlier this year, many thought she would at least take a little time away from the campaign trail. But with the death of Republican Congressman C.W. Bill Young and the opening up of his swing Pinellas County district, she ended up simply switching one campaign trail for another.

Sink announced Wednesday she would enter the race for Young's seat, potentially capsizing the campaign of St. Petersburg attorney Jessica Ehrlich. Ehrlich ran against Young in 2012 and had already announced she would run for the seat again in 2014 -- even before Young announced he would retire.

Sink, a former banker, said she was "frustrated and upset" at the recent government shutdown and partisan gridlock in Congress.

"It was just kind of being angry at the television and thinking, get your act together," Sink said in one of several interviews she conducted at a local burger joint. "We need people who can put bickering aside and be problem-solvers and work across party lines. And that's what I did in Tallahassee."

Democrats celebrated the recruiting coup. The GOP was still trying to straighten out its field and avoid the kind of primary that could divide the party and give Sink an even easier path to election. Almost every Republican in Pinellas County seemed to be floated as a potential contender, though at least part of the establishment was believed to be coalescing behind former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker.

"I think that the primary will eventually not be that crowded," said Michael Guju, chairman of the Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee.


Half a state and seemingly a world away from the political hubbub in Tampa Bay, Liberty County Sheriff Nick Finch fought off charges of official misconduct and falsifying public records, allowing him to be reinstated to his position by Scott.

The criminal charges and suspension came after a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation concluded that the sheriff released a local man, Floyd Eugene Parrish, who had been arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, and that Finch destroyed or altered records of the arrest.

But it took a jury from the rural county about 90 minutes to acquit Finch, 51, who had argued that he was simply trying to follow the Second Amendment's charge that citizens have the right to bear arms.

"It was his belief in the Second Amendment that prompted Sheriff Finch to release Mr. Parrish," said defense attorney Jimmy Judkins in closing arguments. "It's a way of life over here for people to own guns."

Assistant State Attorney Jack Campbell argued that Finch was "a politician" who owed Parrish's family a favor for helping to elect him. Finch was elected in November 2012 in a close race, narrowly defeating the incumbent.

According to an FDLE affidavit, a Liberty County deputy arrested Parrish during a traffic stop for the felony charge of carrying a concealed deadly weapon -- a loaded semi-automatic pistol that was found hidden in his right-front pants pocket.

"The Parrish brothers -- their support in the campaign led to a get-out-of-jail-free card," Campbell said.

Judkins argued that Finch "didn't have any relationship" with Parrish. He said Finch was trying to avoid "creating felons out of people who are minding their own business and not being a threat to society."

While the case in Liberty County didn't touch on the state's famous Stand Your Ground self-defense law, that policy was at issue in a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, chaired by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

As often happens in such cases, the hearing seemed as much about what senators wanted to say about the law as what they wanted to find out.

"Self-defense is a bedrock liberty of every American,'' said U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

For their part, opponents of the law say it has turned Florida into a free-fire zone.

"I face the very real possibility that my son's killer will walk free, hiding behind a statute that lets people claim a threat when there was none," said Lucia McBath, whose son, Jordan Russell Davis, also 17, was killed while sitting in a car during a dispute over loud music in Jacksonville.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat, filed to run for his old job again in 2014, setting up a likely showdown with incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Trusted to do what? To stay in the crazy club? Well, I hope not." -- Crist, on charges that his party switching means Floridians shouldn't trust him.

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