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This Week in Politics: ‘It’s My Party and I’ll Leave if I Want To!’

charlie_crist_independentThe party may have been over this week for Gov. Charlie Crist and the Republican Party of Florida, but an unpredictable three-way race for the U.S Senate between Crist, Republican Marco Rubio and likely Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek was just beginning.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Crist made it official this week that he was running for the Senate as a candidate with no-party affiliation, breaking the news in a speech that was carried live on national television. Reaction was swift – and predictable. Republicans and Democrats alike said Crist was putting ambition above party.

Crist of course said the opposite. Running for re-election as governor would have actually been taking the easy way out. Running up the middle in the Senate race, he said, was "the right thing for America, it's the right thing for Florida, it's the right thing for people."

But even Crist, on what a Rubio spokesman said this week would be “the best day of his new campaign,” acknowledged the road ahead without a party could be tough.

“I know it's uncharted territory,” he said to a crowd of people and television cameras in St. Petersburg. “I don't have either party helping me. I need you."

Rubio and Meek pounced, appearing on 24 hour cable news network as soon as Crist finished speaking. Rubio scheduled a press conference at the site of his son’s championship tee ball game, making it the best covered little-league baseball game this side of Williamsport, Pa.

Rubio bashed Crist for “still not getting it,” and then coached first base. He also scheduled several events to thank Republican volunteers, emphasis on Republican.
"I am a Republican because it is the natural home for all Americans who believe in limited government, individual freedom, a strong defense and traditional values," Rubio said.

Democrats did their best to keep Crist and Rubio in the same boat, even if they are no longer in the same party.

“There are two clear winners from today's announcement - Kendrick Meek and the people of Florida,” incoming Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich, D-Westin, said in a statement released quickly by Meek’s campaign.

“Kendrick has remained focused on the people of this state, never getting distracted by the petty bickering and political backbiting consuming Gov. Crist, Speaker Rubio, and the Republican Party of Florida,” Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Karen Thurman added, revealing how Meek thinks he can squeeze into the Crist-Rubio clash of the titans.

Republicans were equally ready with tart statements, swiftly denouncing Crist for “abandoning his party.”

“Charlie Crist left the Republican Party a long time ago – today he finally had the courage to make it official,” was House Majority Leader Adam Hasner’s one-sentence reply.

Their face-to-face reactions were not much more magnanimous. GOP Chairman and Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said that he would sell the portrait of Crist that was hanging at the Florida Republican Party headquarters on E-Bay. Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, a South Florida congressional candidate said took it a step further, saying he’s severing all ties with Crist.

“I will not be seen anywhere in public with the governor,” Rivera said. “I will not participate in anything that involves Gov. Crist.”

Most other lawmakers said they could at least share a room with Crist, even if they were deeply, deeply disappointed by his decision. But there was some doubt on the final day of session whether lawmakers would hold the traditional Sine Die ceremony, which is usually attended by the House and Senate leaders and the governor.

Reaction to the decision was more muted in the Capitol, where lobbyists crowded around televisions on the fourth floor to watch Crist bolt the GOP in silence. The most audible reaction from those gathered to watch Crist sever his Republican ties came when the newly-independent governor said he did not believe in demagoguing opponents.

The “third chamber,” as the area where lobbyists congregate is sometimes called, snickered in disagreement.

Perhaps registering the disappointment of the lobbying corps, however, were bumper stickers floating around the Capitol in the run up to Crist’s speech that said “See Ya Charlie.”

“Thanks for Jim Greer, Europe trips, Stan and Solar Pool Heaters,” the bumper sticker said. The message was signed “Your Friends in Florida.”

The House was more direct, seeking briefly to block the no-party governor from raising campaign cash until he could no longer wield his veto pen. The aforementioned Hasner floated an amendment to an ethics bill that would have made it illegal for Crist to take contributions “from any individual or entity having an interest in any legislation between the time the legislation is enrolled and 15 days after the legislation is presented to the Governor for his or her approval.”

Cooler heads prevailed, however, and the amendment was never taken up.

MONEY ON THE LINE

Lawmakers concluded negotiations on a state budget that ultimately topped $70 billion this week, setting up a final vote that could held anytime Friday afternoon. The budget was delivered to lawmakers desks Tuesday at 2:34 p.m. in the Senate and 2:54 p.m. in the House, setting off both chamber’s 72 hour clocks.

PSC HELP WANTED

When they weren’t fuming at Gov. Charlie Crist independent turn, lawmakers were hanging a “Help Wanted” sign at the Florida Public Service Commission.

After a couple contentious committee hearings, the confirmations of PSC Commissioners David Klement and Benjamin “Steve” Stevens came to the floor of the Florida Senate. When it was all said and done, both men, who joined the PSC after a conflict-of-interest scandal roiled the panel, were soon-to-be unemployed.

The Senate approved 533 executive appointments in one vote before individually voting on Klement and Stevens, The chamber 17-21 against confirming Klement and a 14-23 against Stevens.

"This whole process is a farce," Klement said in a sharply worded statement released by the PSC, adding “this is an example of government at its worst.”

With both men voted down, the PSC Nominating Council will have to send Crist three applicants for each post. They got a head start this week, advertising the $130,036 jobs. Applications are due May 17, though Klement said people would think twice about sending in resumes after watching the Senate vote the confirmations down.

MORE MONEY

Gov. Crist also got his great whale this week, a gaming compact with the Seminole Indian Tribe. But despite trying since at least 2007 to get lawmakers to expand gaming and card games on the reservation for an influx of cash for the cash-strapped state, Crist signed the bill with little fanfare, notifying reporters a whopping two minutes in advance.

Crist will likely trumpet the compact more publicly with the tribe, a spokesman said this week. The deal had been even longer in the making for the Seminoles, who have been pursuing a compact for almost two decades. Lawmakers also sent Crist a major jobs bill and a host of other measures in a fast moving last week of the session.

ULTRASOUNDS AND ULTIMATUMS

With the budget deal done and most major measures having either been passed or killed for fear of a veto-happy independent Crist, lawmakers had plenty of time on their hands in the final week of session. They spent large chunks of it bogged down in a debate about abortion.

It started in the Senate, where lawmakers voted to require women seeking abortions to have an ultrasound and, in most cases, have the image of the fetus described to them. The women wouldn't have to look at the image afterward, if they sign a form declining to do so. Women who can show they are raped, or a victim of incest or domestic violence, wouldn't have to have the image described to them, but still would have to have the ultrasound.

The Senate also approved a provision barring the use of state or federal money to pay for abortion - which could mean that women would also have to pay for the ultrasounds.

The ultrasound amendment passed on its first vote 22-17, with one Democrat, Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, voting yes, and several female Republican senators voting no. Only one female senator, ardent abortion opponent Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, voted yes the ultrasound bill, though Republicans Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, Nancy Detert, R-Venice, and Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, voted yes on the funding amendment, which passed 24-11. Dockery later voted yes on the final vote on the abortion language, which was tacked onto a minor health care bill by Sen. Andy Gardiner, taking issue with Storms calling herself “the only pro-life woman” in the Senate.

Democrats assailed the amendments as an attack on a woman's right to choose, but backers said that the ultrasound amendment simply provided for informed consent and the funding amendment codified federal law in state statutes.

The last time the Senate voted on the ultrasound measure, it ended in a tie. Then it was memorably opposed by late Sen. Jim King, who Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, quoted to explain his no vote.

“I’m reminded what a good friend of mine said a couple of years ago when we were debating this particular issue,” he said. “I remember Sen. Jim King standing up and saying 'if you don’t ovulate, keep out of the debate'.” However, the Senate voted 23-17 to send the provisions to the House.

The bill came to the House floor Friday morning. House leaders tried keep the angry and at times emotional debate from innocent ears, directing teenage pages to leave the chamber and requesting several times that parents with young children leave the gallery. The House ultimately approved the larger health care measure on a party line vote, sending the measure to the governor, whose now-independent veto pen could await.

Elsewhere, several lawmakers said their final goodbyes to the Legislature this week, including House Speaker Larry Cretul and Senate President Jeff Atwater, who each joined the pantheon of presiding officers hanging above the chambers. Senate Minority Leader Al Lawson joined them briefly – and improbably. Lawson had a portrait done too, and told Atwater in his farewell remarks “I think I should have been up there.”

Atwater had Lawson’s picture hung at the conclusion of a session this week to surprise the 28 year veteran the next morning.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Charlie Crist made his break up with the Republican Party official this week – though the relationship had long since gone sour - drawing ire from some quarters in Florida and the attention of national political observers.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "I could've chosen to stay in the primary. But frankly, for me, it's your decision. It's not one club's decision or the other. Or even a club within that club…We go straight to November, and it's your decision to make," Gov. Crist setting the stage for a three-way Senate free-for-all with Marco Rubio and Kendrick Meek.

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