BY STEVE ROTHAUS
The largest gay-rights groups in Florida and the nation endorsed Democrat Charlie Crist on Thursday, a turnaround for the former Republican governor who once helped enshrine a same-sex marriage ban in the state's constitution.
In accepting the support of Equality Florida Action PAC and the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, Crist pledged to pressure Florida's Republican attorney general, Pam Bondi, to stop fighting a lawsuit seeking to overturn the same-sex marriage ban voters approved in 2008 by 62 percent.
"I think it’s important to be able to use the influence of the office of governor in a positive, effective way,” Crist said, “and encourage the attorney general, No. 1, to get rid of these lawsuits – I think it’s a waste of time.”
“No. 2,” Crist said, “there’s a bully pulpit that comes with the office of governor. And I think you can appeal to the people of Florida to maybe call the attorney general and ask her to get rid of these lawsuits and let individuals in the state of Florida live their lives and keep your nose out of their private life."
In accepting the endorsement on Thursday at the LGBT Visitor Center in South Beach, Crist said "Floridians want fairness and this is an issue of fundamental fairness."
"We need to allow people to love who they love," he said. "Who are we to tell anyone who to love? Or for that matter, who to marry?"
Seven months before Crist was a declared candidate in this year’s gubernatorial campaign, he announced his support for gay marriage. “I most certainly support marriage equality in Florida and look forward to the day it happens here,” Crist quietly posted on Facebook in May 2013.
That was a change from Crist’s position in 2010 when the then-Republican governor ran for U.S. Senate against conservative Marco Rubio, the eventual winner.
Calling marriage “a sacred institution,” Crist told CNN four years ago, “I believe that it is between a man and a woman.”
PAC chairman Stratton Pollitzer said his group has embraced Crist's changed position.
"We’re very appreciative of how forthright the governor has been about his positions in the past and his willingness to apologize and move forward," Pollitzer said. "As a gay-rights organization, our entire strategy is built upon the premise that people can change and will move towards equality. And when they do, we celebrate it. When President Obama came out in support of marriage equality, we celebrated it. When Gov. Crist came out in support of marriage equality, we celebrated that, too."
Crist thanked the LGBT activists for the support and said: "Florida truly does deserve to have a governor who understands that individual rights and freedom matters and that all people should be treated with not only tolerance, but also dignity and be embraced."
Equality Florida says Crist has otherwise been a longtime LGBT-rights advocate. While governor, he dropped his support for Florida’s gay adoption ban and worked with the state Department of Children and Families to stop enforcement. During his Senate campaign, Crist supported repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and passage of a law that would prevent LGBT-related workplace discrimination.
Crist served as a Republican governor from 2007 to 2011. During his Senate run, he left the GOP. Eventually, he endorsed President Barack Obama for reelection in 2012 and became a Democrat.
Last November, Crist officially declared his candidacy for governor, challenging former state Sen. Nan Rich, of Broward, who also is seeking the Democratic nomination. The primary will be Aug. 26. Whoever wins will face incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott on Nov. 4.
After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a year ago that the federal government must recognize legal same-sex marriages, Scott said he would continue to support Florida’s 2008 constitutional ban.
“Look, it’s the law of the land. Voters in 2008 decided we’re going to be a traditional marriage state,” Scott told the Tampa Bay Times. “Look, I’ve been married since I was 19. I believe in traditional marriage.”
In tandem with the Equality Florida announcement, Human Rights Campaign also endorsed Crist.
“We are honored to stand with Charlie Crist in his campaign to be the next governor of Florida,” HRC National Field Director Marty Rouse said in a statement. "Gov. Crist will work to improve the lives of all Florida families – including LGBT families – and for that he has our gratitude and our support.”
Some LGBT people were not pleased with Thursday's endorsements.
Rich, a former Senate minority leader who term-limited in 2012, has been a longtime supporter of gay marriage, HIV/AIDS funding and other LGBT-rights issues.
“I’m going to continue to support Nan,” Broward LGBT/HIV activist Michael Emanuel Rajner. “I trust Equality Florida is doing the best for the community to advance rights, legislation, protections. Unfortunately elections are not always what we would want them to be.”
Miami Herald political writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.