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Crist lines up union support, and cash, like a true blue Democrat

Charlie Crist, TBT

Charlie Crist may be a newly minted Democrat, but he’s racking up union support as if he has always been a liberal shade of blue.

AFSCME, the union that bargains for most state employees, sent Crist’s political committee a $1 million check on Tuesday, the same day he announced that, if elected, he would use his executive powers to immediately raise the minimum wage for state contractors to $10.10 an hour — a top union priority.

The Florida Police Benevolent Association also endorsed Crist this month, and sent his campaign $50,000 — an amount matched by the Florida pipefitters’ union. The Dade County firefighters donated $25,000; AFSCME’s political committee, the Florida Workers’ Advocates, already gave Crist $50,000; and the Florida Education Association, which first endorsed Crist as an independent Senate candidate in 2010, this year endorsed him again.

The endorsements and contributions are more signs that Crist is now the candidate of the Democratic establishment, which has eschewed longtime liberal Democrat and former state Sen. Nan Rich, his opponent in the Aug. 26 primary. And they are proof that attempts by Gov. Rick Scott to mend fences with teachers and police unions, whose ranks provide boots-on-the-ground campaign support, have fallen short.

“We are backing [Crist] so aggressively because we feel we have given every governor in the governor’s seat a fair deal in treating public employees fairly, but that hasn’t happened with this governor,” said Jeannette Wynn, Florida president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Eight years ago, each of these unions with the exception of the PBA opposed Crist, then a Republican candidate for governor, and endorsed his Democratic opponent, Jim Davis. The PBA played it safe — endorsing Crist but also backing Davis’ primary rival, Rod Smith.

The $1 million check to the “Crist for Florida” committee was the biggest single donation to the $10.4 million account so far, but Gov. Rick Scott’s campaign is not concerned. His “Let’s Get to Work” committee has raised $32.8 million.

“Union bosses endorse Charlie Crist. In other news, water is wet,” said Scott spokesman Greg Blair.

He said Scott should be credited with improving the lives of Florida’s working families by creating jobs, reducing taxes and repealing tuition increases that occurred under Crist.

“Charlie Crist’s newfound interest in pleasing liberal special interests just shows he’s willing to say or do anything for money and fame,” Blair said.

Wynn acknowledges that Crist hasn’t always supported increasing the minimum wage, but said her union could live with that.

“I think Charlie Crist has grown over the years,” she said, noting that once in office he recommended pay raises for state workers. “You grow as you live and you learn.”

By contrast, she said, once state revenues bounced back after the recession, Gov. Rick Scott refused to recommend a pay raise for state workers, even after reducing worker pay by imposing a fee on members of the Florida Retirement System that had been previously funded by the state, counties and local governments.

“When there was no money for pay raises and other benefits for public employees, we acknowledged the money wasn’t there,” Wynn said. “But when the money became available, we felt it was a slap on the face when this governor, and this Legislature, decided we’re not going to give state employees pay raises.”

Wynn also complained that Scott’s support for $600 bonuses for about a third of the workforce instead of wage increases for all “treated workers unfairly.”

State workers have not only lost earning power over the past four years, state reports show there are fewer of them as the state has increasingly relied on private contractors. According to the Department of Management Serivces, the number of full-time employees working in executive agencies dropped from 105,031 in the last six months of Crist’s term to 91,503 last year under Scott. During that time, the overall state budget has grown.

In his first year in office, Scott also actively pursued a plan to ban unions from deducting dues from employee paychecks, a failed move that many rank-and-file union members have not forgotten. That same year, Scott initiated a $1.3 billion cut to education and, after trying to repair his record with the teachers’ union by funding merit pay increases for teachers, he signed a bill this year to expand the state’s private school voucher program. The FEA is suing the state over that law.

Meanwhile, AFSCME and the Service Employees International Union, which represents healthcare workers in Florida, have given generously to the Florida For All, a political committee that has steered more than $1.4 million to the Florida Democratic Party in the past month. Campaign reports show that SEIU has given $500,000 and AFSCME $790,000.

SEIU president Monica Russo said that while her union has not yet endorsed a candidate for governor, it will support the Democrat who wins the primary. If that is Crist, it will be a switch from its endorsement of Davis in 2006.

“We’re very practical people, and people evolve,” Russo said. “We’ve met with him for months now, and he understands that Medicaid expansion has to happen.”

Crist has also embraced the call by SEIU and AFSCME for expansion of the federal minimum wage. On Tuesday, he also promised to use his executive authority to require businesses that contract with the state to pay women the same as men for the same jobs and end discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgender persons.

“Our members have historically played a role in mobilizing communities in elections,” Russo said. “Our biggest contribution will be boots on the ground.”

Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.