How Charlie Crist’s environmental policies led to his ouster from the Republican Party

By | 05.24.10 | 12:00 pm

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist announced his desire to call for a special legislative session this month to take care of urgent state business — a proposal to ban offshore oil drilling following the oil rig accident in Louisiana. But it is also a chance for U.S. Senate candidate Crist to broadcast his environmental bona fides. Crist has long championed environmental protection, and his policies are in many ways responsible for his ouster from the Republican Party.

Crist lobbied against the coal industry, proposed vehicle emission standards that would have cost the auto industry millions and orchestrated to remove big sugar from the Everglades. He has cited California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as his role model.

It was these positions, among others, that alienated him from the conservative media early on, prompting them to question whether Crist was conservative enough — at a time when the party’s core constituents were becoming more activist and ideological.

But as the state’s most powerful Republican, and an incumbent governor, Crist was largely seen as unbeatable in any statewide race when he chose to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Mel Martinez. The industries he provoked had little choice except to try to appeal to him, including donating to his war chest — until Marco Rubio announced he would challenge Crist.

Rubio, Florida’s house speaker, soon emerged as the darling of the right, making him a viable candidate. And big money started flowing Rubio’s way, from petro-chemical giant Koch Industries ($16,400), sugar conglomerate Flo-Sun ($22,600) and chemical holding company Contran ($12,000).

The combination of tea party disaffection and industry concern made Crist a sitting target, ultimately knocking him from his perch of power, forcing him to leave the Republican Party and run as an independent.

And it has caused many to question whether the Republican Party in its current form can ever reconcile itself with environmental concerns.

“It’s important to point out that if the Republican Party does not have room for people like Charlie Crist then not only is the party turning its back on its own heritage — America’s first conservationists were Republicans — but it is digging a hole for itself,” says Jim DiPeso, policy director for Republicans for Environmental Protection. “It is putting itself at risk of alienating a lot of Americans who do not view these goals through an ideological lens.”

Environmental policies weren’t the only thing that alienated Crist from the conservative base, notes Jeff Hollingsworth, executive director of the National Conservative Campaign Fund. “The environment may have been a factor,” Hollingsworth says. “But the larger factor is Crist’s supporting the Obama-Pelosi-Reid agenda in Washington.”

Still, the chronology of Crist’s environmental policies as governor follow his descent within the Republican Party. In July of 2007, a year after he was elected governor, Crist appointed an “Action Team on Energy and Climate Change” to create targets for statewide greenhouse gas reductions. He announced opposition to any new coal-burning energy plants, prompting three such plants to die in their planning stages. In June 2008 he signed a bill promoting solar and ethanol energy projects. Then he announced a plan to buy 187,000 acres of U.S. Sugar land in the Everglades as part of an effort to restore water flow through the “river of grass.” In July he held a climate change summit in Miami attended by Gov. Schwarzenegger.

“Arnold’s a friend,” Crist told the environmental site grist.org. “He’s a hero to me. [Climate change] has not been the typical Republican issue, but Gov. Schwarzenegger has changed that.”

But even as Crist marched forward with his green agenda, his own party was attempting to subvert it. In June 2008 State Rep. Paige Kreegel, R-Punta Gorda, an admitted global warming skeptic, blocked a bill that would have required emissions and fuel efficiency standards for automobiles in Florida. Kreegle attached an amendment to the bill denying the governor the authority to regulate these matters. Two months before the vote, Kreegel took nearly $8,000 in donations from auto industry lobbyists, according to an investigation by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

By this time Crist was starting to feel pressure from within his party. When Sen. John McCain vowed to lift bans on offshore drilling during his 2008 presidential campaign, Crist also reversed his opposition to drilling. At the time McCain was considering Crist as a potential running mate.

McCain bypassed Crist for the far-right Sarah Palin. It was one indication of party disaffection, which only grew after the presidential election. When Crist accepted federal stimulus money and briefly embraced President Obama during a related press conference, his fate was sealed. In 2009 conservative pundit Michelle Malkin called Crist a “loser.”

Meanwhile, Rubio was capitalizing on these changing tides. He supported lifting bans on offshore drilling and oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and opposed any energy tax — mainstream views within the party. In August 2009, the National Review put Rubio on its cover. Conservative columnist George Will complained in a September 27, 2009, piece that Crist “is a climate-change worrywart who wants to cap Florida’s carbon emissions.” The column was titled “A Ripe Time for Florida’s Marco Rubio.”

“Charlie Crist being chased out of the Republican Party is a tragedy,” says Republicans for Environmental Protection’s DiPeso. “I think it was part of the whole narrative building that Charlie is not a real conservative; he’s too far to the left. If the conventional wisdom is that environmental protection is not our issue, that it’s only for liberals, then that’s a mistake. Republicans need to be at the table making these decisions too.”

Louisiana’s oil rig disaster, which could gravely impact Florida’s tourism, may very well prove DiPeso’s point.

In 2008, Crist enjoyed high approval ratings as governor and as leader of his party. The notion that all of this could change so drastically must have seemed implausible at the time. And it may have prompted Crist’s confidence when he told Grist: “I don’t really care about party affiliation — I just want to serve the people. … A lot of issues are important to me. The economy and budgets are very important. But if we don’t save the planet, they kind of don’t matter anymore.”

Photo courtesy commons.wikimedia.org

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