THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Crist's Senate Candidacy Undercut by Claims, Power Grab

As
the open U.S. Senate race in Florida heats up, the record of incumbent Governor
Charlie Crist is rightly being examined by the news media, conservative
activists and Florida voters.

The
deeper one digs into his record, the more skeptical they become.

While
Crist once rode sky-high approval ratings, today he’s facing fire from all
sides as unemployment in Florida has reached 11 percent, the housing bubble
burst in South Florida, and the state faces a bleak economic picture.  Meanwhile, the state’s Chief Executive has
his eye on another office.

With
the surging candidacy of Florida Speaker of the House Marco Rubio (R-FL), Gov. Crist
recently moved his Gubernatorial Chief of Staff over to manage his U.S. Senate
campaign.  With this decision, it’s clear
where Gov. Crist’s priorities lie.

Conservative
columnist Reihan Salam recently wrote in Forbes magazine
that Gov. Crist may be “America’s worst Governor.”

In
recent weeks, we have seen two important examples of Crist’s dubious claims and
self-dealing.

First,
in an attempt to shore up his conservative credentials, Crist utilized his huge
cash advantage to air radio advertisements 11 months before the primary.  In the ad, Crist claims to have cut
government spending by 10 percent ($7 billion) is his first term.

But
a fact
check
by the St.
Petersburg Times
called Crist’s claims “barely true,” given that the State
Constitution requires a balanced budget and with the Florida economy
contracting Crist had no choice and little to do with the cuts.

About
Crists’s claims, Florida TaxWatch CEO Dominic Calabro said, “This is not a
concerted effort on the part of our Governor and Legislature to cut the
budget.  It’s because of the worst
economy Florida has had since the Great Depression.”

Second,
apart from the Florida economy, Gov. Crist has also clumsily attempted to stack
the deck of an independent regulatory body to overturn a likely agency decision
that he disagreed with.

Gov.
Crist announced on October 1 that he was denying a request for re-appointment
of two members of the five-member Public Service Commission (PSC), which
oversee the public utilities in Florida, and instead deciding to “clean house”
and appoint two new members of the board in the middle of complicated hearings.

This
announcement, viewed independently, falls within his powers as the Governor.

But
the PSC was in the midst of considering rate requests, the first in two
decades, from two utilities, which they claim will increase efficiency and
result in cleaner, stronger and smarter energy infrastructure in this rapidly
growing state.  Also at stake are the
credit ratings of both utilities if their cash flow is not maintained through
their rate increase proposal.

The
notification of the proposed rate appeal, which requires approval from the PSC
to take effect, was first made in late 2008 as the existing rate term expires
at the end of 2009.

With
explosive population growth and the need to foster economic development,
Florida should be particularly sensitive to ensuring that their infrastructure
is meeting their needs.  But at the heart
of this case is the long and combative relationship Gov. Crist has with the
Florida utilities.  In 2005, as Attorney
General he challenged a rate hike for new power plants and maintenance.  In 2006, at the last minute, he made known
his opposition to a utility request for customers to cover storm costs, which
resulted in a partial denial from the PSC and reduced earnings.

One
reasonable question to ask: why did the Governor appoint two new members in
October for board seats that would not be available until Jan. 1?

It
appears that Gov. Crist, who publicly opposes the proposed rate changes,
attempted to sideline two current members of the PSC with the hope that it would
affect votes set for Nov. 19 and Dec. 21, before their terms expire.  One of the board members resigned immediately
and now Gov. Crist put his selected applicant in place before the November vote.

On
Oct. 2, Gov. Crist even asked the PSC to delay their rate case decision until
his appointees took office in January.  On
Oct. 27, the PSC agreed to Crist’s demand and will delay the rate decisions
until at least Jan. 4.

Besides
the suspicious timing of the appointments and the delay sought, Gov. Crist then
tried to claim that the question of rate increases was never brought up before
he announced his two new appointees, David E. Klement and Benjamin “Steve” Stevens.

According
to the Orlando Sentinel, Gov. Crist said he did not pose any
rate-increase litmus test questions to Klement or Stevens, though he has
clearly and publicly signaled his desired outcome. "I did not pose that
question," he said.  Such a
statement requires willing suspension of disbelief.

This case may have a chilling
effect in Florida.  Government officials,
even those at independent regulatory bodies, must toe the line of the Governor
or risk being professionally embarrassed, undermined or passed over.

"I think it's no accident that all these
shenanigans and sideshows are happening because we have these two rate
cases," PSC Chairman Matthew Carter has said.

In choosing to run for the U.S. Senate seat
before completing his first term as Governor, Charlie Crist has brought
scrutiny, pressure, and examination onto his record of public service.

And while many Washington Republicans initially
backed Crist for political reasons, they now have cause for worry about the
Governor’s political prospects.

Matt Mackowiak is an Austin
and Washington, D.C.-based GOP political and communications consultant and
founder of Potomac Strategy Group, LLC, and was Press Secretary to two U.S.
Senators from 2005-2009.