While on my trip down South (between July 1 and July 10, I traveled through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida), heading to the 2007 YRNF Convention, I took the opportunity to do a number of interviews. Now that I’m back online, and the new site is up, I’m posting them, one by one.
First up, my interview with Gov. Charlie Crist, who spoke at the YRNF Convention, and who I caught up with just about a week ago, to chat about his administration’s successes, objectives, and how he sees the 2008 election playing out in Florida.
Gov. Crist is a real rising star in the GOP. From speaking to actual delegates, as opposed to, er, certain partisan dinner attendees, Crist wowed the audience more than Mitt Romney, who also spoke at the dinner on the final night of the Convention. That should tell you something about where he could go, given a few more years of what looks thus far like a tremendously successful administration.
Keep your eyes on this man...
Liz Mair: One of the reasons I wanted to interview you is that you’ve been in office for just a few months now, but you’ve already achieved a very high popularity rating and I know a lot of people in the nation’s capital are watching very closely what you’re doing down here. Tell me, what are the three biggest achievements that you think you’ve accomplished so far?
Charlie Crist: Well, we’ve had two very critical economic issues that we’ve had to address: insurance reform as well as property tax reform, so those have to be uppermost among them. They’re not completed tasks yet, I wouldn’t describe them that way, but we’ve really turned the ship as it relates to how Florida previously handled the insurance industry as well as property taxes. So, I’m most pleased with that change, that shift, and how we’re fighting for people, and being better consumer advocates and trying to look out for their pocketbook. The third one is hard to identify. We restored felons’ rights to vote, we’re having this climate change summit next week with Governor Schwarzenegger in Miami, and you know, there are a lot of different things that we’re trying to do, to protect the environment and to do what’s right for the people and make sure that we’re advocates for consumers and trying to really be the people’s governor, as I ran last year.
Liz Mair: Well, I was going to say, one of the things that I know the readers that tend to be my audience have been very interested in is, I’ve come across a fair bit that you’ve done on the energy front in relation, for example, to turning citrus waste into renewable sources of energy.
Charlie Crist: We have tried to push hard as it relates to ethanol development, solar energy, nuclear, wind power, getting away from coal usage in the state. In fact, the Governor appoints the members of what we call the public service commission in this state that regulates utilities and phone companies. We’ve worked very hard, I’ve appointed two [commissioners]—only two—but, I think it’s made a difference as it relates to coal. One of our biggest utilities wanted to put a coal-fired plant very close to the Florida Everglades, and about a month ago, they rejected that permit, which I was very pleased about and I think my fellow Floridians are pleased about: they prefer us to look to wind, solar and nuclear as sources of energy-- and ethanol. I think it’s very important to wean us off of foreign oil, but it’s also important from an environmental point of view to us as Floridians, because we don’t want drilling off of our coast when we can have the opportunity to utilize ethanol, which is clean, and it can be much more efficiently produced with Florida products like sugar and citrus waste. So, I think that is an area of development you’ll continue to see action on, on our part.
Liz Mair: Interesting. Now, what are your top three objectives moving forward?
Charlie Crist: Well, we want to work hard and healthcare is a continuing interest. We want to work very hard to develop a way by which—we have a significant senior population in the state—they can get prescription drugs at a cheaper rate. So, we’re negotiating with outlets to try to set up a chance for Floridians to have a prescription drug card, where they would be able to get lower cost prescription drugs. That’s a very important agenda item on my desk. And we also want to make sure that we continue to push the area of education, that we pay our teachers more. We have significantly funded education—about $1.3 billion more this budget year alone, which was a very difficult year because right after I got sworn in, we found out that we had about a $1 billion hole in our budget and it looks like we may have continuing lower revenue resources. It looks like about another $800 million deficit again next year. So, we’ve recently sent out a memo to all the agencies to anticipate anywhere between a 4% and 10% decrease in what they have to spend. Those are challenges that continue to face us, and we just want to create more efficiencies with the taxpayers’ dollars. They have been screaming on this property tax front, but we’ve done one half of it. The first half was done statutorily in a special session we just completed a couple weeks ago. The statutory change reduced it by about $15 billion over the next five years.
Liz Mair: That’s quite substantial.
Charlie Crist: Yes. The second component is a constitutional amendment, which will be the same day as the presidential primary—January 29th, which we moved up and by the way, when we moved it up, we also adopted a paper trail, which I’m very proud of, and I think will really help Florida as it relates to ballot integrity and if we need to count ballots, we actually now will have something to count, which kind of makes common sense.
Liz Mair: Yeah, absolutely.
Charlie Crist: But there’s a lot to do, and a lot to get done.
Liz Mair: Now, speaking of the presidential race, my understanding is that for the moment at least, you’re staying out of it and haven’t decided to endorse anybody. Is that correct?
Charlie Crist: That is correct, yes.
Liz Mair: But I’ve understood that traditionally, you’ve got a fairly good relationship with John McCain, and a fairly good relationship with Fred Thompson. Is that right?
Charlie Crist: And a good relationship with Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney.
Liz Mair: So, you’re in a pretty difficult position if you actually have to pick a side, it sounds like.
Charlie Crist: Well, yeah, I mean the reality is that Mayor Giuliani, Senator McCain, and Governor Romney all were very helpful to me in my race for governor last year. And I’m very grateful to all of them for that effort. In a year when most of my colleagues didn’t fare too well, every little assist made a difference, and so I’m a very grateful man for their help. And you know, if I do endorse, it would only be to help my state, and by extension, of course, our country. And it’s a difficult decision, but it’s a good one in that I have good relationships with all these people and I have enormous respect for them all.
Liz Mair: Well, that should mean that regardless of who our nominee is, Florida’s interests are going to be well-served, and you should be well-placed.
Charlie Crist: That is my hope, yes-- and my belief.
Liz Mair: Now, a question for you on the point about delegates. By moving the primary up, obviously there’s been this talk that Florida may lose half of its delegates. Do you think that that’s an absolute, or do you think that that may not happen?
Charlie Crist: I don’t think it’s an absolute, and I’m not sure how much it matters, to be candid with you. When you realize that a week after Florida’s primary, February 5th primaries occur, we’re now the first mega-state to have a presidential primary. I think that’s significant for our state, and that’s my first and foremost interest, always, is what’s good for Florida. Frankly, I think that what’s good for Florida is going to be good for America, and let me explain what I mean by that. It’s a mega-state, and one of the most diverse states in the country. I think that having an early primary gives America a really good sense for who would be a successful nominee, and so I think it’s good for our country that a mega-state is having a primary so early. And really, I think the die is sort of cast once that occurs and we get by February 5th. It’s going to be an early primary and an early nominating process, earlier than ever before probably unless you’ve got an incumbent, of course. But I think that because we’re doing that, by the time you get to the conventions, things are pretty set. So, I don’t know about the number of delegates, what kind of impact that really would have, down the road.
Liz Mair: Well, it seems to me that by Florida having its primary early, there’s probably not going to be much of an adverse impact, and actually, it kind of enables the state to do more to set the tone moving forward. So, I would imagine that’s a good thing from your view.
Charlie Crist: I would agree, I would completely concur.
Liz Mair: Now, do you have any ideas at the moment about who is likely to carry the state? It seems to me that all four of our frontrunners have quite a bit of strength here.
Charlie Crist: Well, they’re all doing well, they’re all working hard. They all come to the state a lot, which is good. They get the sense of how important a national catastrophic fund would be to a state that they covet, and we appreciate the fact that they do. Polling indicates that Mayor Giuliani has done very well in most statewide polls, but they all do well, and it’s early, so time will tell.
Liz Mair: Well, thank you for your time, Governor.
Charlie Crist: Thank you.