Newly minted Democrat Charlie Crist campaigned like a Republican Monday when he visited Little Havana’s Versailles Restaurant and attacked Gov. Rick Scott over an issue commonly associated with GOP candidates: Taxes.
“Rick Scott is trying to boast that he increased education funding. Well, he did it by raising property taxes about $400 million,” Crist said.
What Crist didn’t mention: the tax rate didn't increase, but the tax base and taxable values did -- and property taxes used to pay for education rose under Crist as well.
Crist’s new message – that Scott raised taxes – coincides with the governor’s statewide tour to tout his successful push to repeal auto-tag and title taxes that Crist signed into law in 2009, when the former governor broke a pledge to never raise taxes.
"When I took office, Florida was deep in the hole," Scott said in a statement issued by his campaign. "At a time when Floridians could least afford it, Charlie Crist raised taxes by $2.2 billion and let tuition climb year after year."
Scott didn’t mention that he once called for tuition increases and that his current lieutenant governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, voted for tuition and tax hikes that he’s now taking on. Also, Scott has kept the higher revenues in the budget for a longer period than Crist did.
Crist’s campaign hit back by noting that Scott would have refused to take stimulus money, which saved thousands more government jobs, and that Scott had called for large cuts to education when he first took office in 2011.
The day’s tit for tat on who cut more spending, raised more taxes and flip-flopped the most is a prelude to a long mean-season of a governor’s race.
Crist is nominally ahead in most polls, but Scott has more money and is on pace to spend $100 million, of which he might have already spent a fifth.
A good portion of Scott’s money has been spent on negative ads that bash Crist over his support for Obamacare and for the sorry state of the economy while he was governor. Crist ran for Senate in 2010 as a Republican, left the party during a tough primary and lost anyway.
“Charlie ran away!” a handful of young Republican protestors chanted during Crist’s visit.
Meantime, Republicans have steadily documented Crist’s numerous reversals.
Asked how he would respond to criticisms of his evolution on a variety of issues, the Republican-turned-independent-turned Democrat said “I really haven’t, that’s how I answer it. On gay marriage I have evolved. And I think the president led very well on that issue as well.”
But aside from gay marriage, Crist’s reversals also included his current support for Obamacare and giving in-state college tuition rates to illegal-immigrant kids who have attended Florida high schools.
“OK, there’s three,” Crist responded. “God bless you.”
Scott also reversed himself on in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. But unlike Crist, he’ll get to sign a tuition-relief bill for the so-called “Dreamers” that just passed the Legislature.
Crist emphasized that Scott vetoed a bill last year to give temporary driver’s licenses to Dreamers.
As for Scott’s $500 million in tax cuts this year, Crist said they’re largely eaten up by the $400 million in property-tax increases for schools. Instead of letting property taxes rise, Crist said he would have paid for more school spending out of general-revenue dollars from the state.
Crist had raised property taxes as well, but he said it was different because the state had to increase revenues due to the “global economic meltdown” that occurred while he was in office. Even in those circumstances, “we were able to fund education better than they’re doing now.”
Also, all the taxes and fees Crist signed into law were initially passed – and in some cases proposed – by a GOP Legislature that included Scott’s running mate.
Judging by Crist’s visit to Versailles, voters in this common Republican stomping ground didn’t seem to mind the reversals and backtracking. Crist hugged and kissed abuelas, backslapped businessmen and handed out signs and bumper stickers to dozens of people all the while posing for pictures.
“This is cool, the governor’s here,” said Joseph Dion a 33-year-old who stopped by for lunch. Compared to Scott, he said, “I like Crist better. Seeing him here, in my neighborhood, is already pushing me toward him.”
Dion, like Crist used to be, is a Republican.
But Crist can’t shake every voter’s hand, and in a state as big as Florida, advertising on television is a must.
Out-matched in money, Crist makes himself more available than Scott to reporters – especially TV – so that the Democrat can enjoy what’s known as “free media,” where he bashed Scott for failing to expand Medicaid, for instance, or for cancelling a high-speed rail project in Central Florida.
Crist also called for lifting the embargo against Cuba. That’s another reversal. Years ago, such a sentiment would have been anathema at Versailles. But attitudes are changing.
“I’m Cuban, and I love you,” Fidelina Peña, a 71-year-old independent, told Crist in the parking lot. She said she didn’t believe the embargo was effective anyway, and she didn’t like Scott because he has “crazy eyes.”
Asked if all the questions about flip-flopping bothered him, Crist smiled.
“Nothing bothers me. Nothing bothers me,” he said. “The only thing that bothers me is that Rick Scott is our governor. And we need to change it. I think that’s why we’re doing well in the polls. That’s why our funding is going better all the time.”