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Environmentalists recall Crist's 'green' record as governor; GOP tries to raise doubts

Then-Gov. Charlie Crist speaks in 2010 at an Earth Day event at the Florida Capitol. Environmentalists recall his record fondly as he launches a bid, now as a Democrat, for governor. Photo by Bruce Ritchie

Some environmentalists this week fondly recalled Charlie Crist's environmental record as governor despite GOP attempts to characterize the former Republican as an opportunist.

Crist obviously wants to capitalize on that environmental good will in 2014. His announcement this week that he is seeking to challenge Gov. Rick Scott as a Democrat was laced with environmental themes though short on specifics.

"We deserve a governor who will fight to protect our precious Everglades and our beaches and ensure that every Floridian has clean air to breathe and clean water to drink," Crist said.

"We deserve a governor who recommits to preserving the open lands of this state for generations to visit, hike, hunt and fish," he said.

The GOP, though, has been rolling out earlier Democratic criticism of Crist for months and debuted a video on Monday titled, "He's an Opportunist."

It included quotes by former Vice President Al Gore and former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink.

Former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, a Republican who was appointed by Crist after serving as his chief of staff, told reporters that where Crist now stands on the environment "remains to be seen."

"I remember when Charlie Crist changed his position on offshore drilling and embraced offshore drilling off the coast of Florida," LeMieux said. "It would be interesting to know if he still holds that position."

Crist advisor Kevin Cate said the former governor opposes drilling off of Florida's coast unless it is shown to be far enough away and safe enough to protect Florida's beaches.

Crist didn't really "embrace" drilling in 2008 -- or he didn't do so for long -- but he did open a door on the issue where there previously had been bipartisan opposition.

Crist won over environmentalists after taking office in 2007 by opposing coal-fired power plants that were proposed across the state.

He quickly became known as the "green governor" when he put solar panels on the roof of the governor's mansion, held a clean-energy summit in Miami and proposed a renewable energy requirement for utilities.

However, he shifted from his opposition to drilling in 2008 with his comments to the Miami Herald that "Floridians are suffering" from high gas prices.

"When you're paying over $4 a gallon for gas, you have to wonder whether there might be additional resources to bring that price down," Crist said.

Crist also signed a series of bills in 2009 that environmentalists wanted vetoed. An Orlando Sentinel editorial called him "Our Gray Governor," as in no longer green.

But in 2009 Crist also opposed a bill (HB 1219) that passed the House and would have lifted the ban on drilling in Florida waters, which extend 10.36 miles from the Gulf of Mexico shoreline.

And in 2010, he called a special session after the Gulf oil spill to take up a constitutional drilling ban. Republicans legislators quickly dismissed the idea as political theater and adjourned.

"Crist was one of a long line of good environmental governors," said Eric Draper of Audubon Florida.

On the other hand, "Scott has worked to establish an environmental legacy," Draper said. Audubon Florida does not endorse candidates.

Scott has focused on jobs and the economy since he took office with tea party support in 2011.

He blamed regulations for killing jobs, and he cut taxes at the water management districts. He also signed a bill to eliminate the Florida Department of Community Affairs and roll back state oversight of growth management.

Scott won federal backing in 2012 for an $880 million Everglades cleanup plan that largely had environmental support. He made a series of announcements this year for environmental spending initiatives.

Frank Jackalone, Sierra Club's senior organizing manager in Florida, points to Crist's record as the stronger of the two governors so far.

"Crist had a bit of a mixed record as governor," Jackalone said, noting the 2009 legislation that was signed despite environmentalists' veto requests.

"For the most part he (Crist) was an environmental champion," Jackalone said. "I'm convinced from watching him he is truly dedicated to the concepts of clean energy and preserving Florida's land and water."

The Sierra Club, Jackalone said, will review in 2014 the records of Scott, Crist and former Sen. Nan Rich, who also is vying for the Democratic nomination, before endorsing a candidate.

Reporter Bruce Ritchie can be reached at [email protected].


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