BP Oil Spill Defined the Political Fortunes of Charlie Crist

Gov. Crist during the oil spill
Cameras follow Charlie Crist as he visits Panhandle beaches during the oil spill.
Gov. Scott on the one-year anniversary of the oil spill
Gov. Rick Scott visits a Panhandle shipyard on the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the oil spill
TAMPA (2011-7-14) -

It's been one year since the BP oil gusher was finally capped. At first, the spill was a political gift for then-Gov. Charlie Crist. But as the oil spill dragged on, it dragged down his political career.

The chocolate-brown waves that buffeted Florida's Panhandle during the oil spill also defined the political ebb and flow of Florida's governor, Charlie Crist.

Before the spill, he was embroiled in a tough U.S. Senate race against Marco Rubio, who was stealing the limelight from Crist. And then...

"This is the largest single environmental catastrophe that's faced our country," Crist said when the spill reached Florida's Panhandle.

When the first tarballs stained Pensacola's beaches, Crist became a daily fixture on national television.

"We're greatly concerned about it," he said, "and that's why we've been working as hard as we can these past 55 days to do everything humanly possible to protect these beautiful beaches and the great people who live here, and their businesses."

"The image of him walking on the beach barefoot with his sleeves rolled up talking to somebody - that's the kind of image you want," says USF political scientist Susan MacManus.

But MacManus says like the oil gusher - it didn't last. MacManus says Crist's poll numbers fell as the oil spill dragged on.

"And day in and day out, when it was still leaking and the cap wasn't on," she says, "people began to get very cynical and very pessimistic, and they took it out - as they always do - on the chief executive of the state."

Crist called a special session of the Legislature to ban oil drilling off Florida's coast. The House ignored the bill and adjourned after less than an hour.

"How arrogant can a legislature be," he said.

Crist had some choice words for the legislature after the special session abruptly ended.

"When President Truman was president he called the Congress the do-nothing Congress. Well today, I call this legislature the do-nothing legislature and I'm gonna give 'em hell for it."

"I think a lot of analysts thought that maybe he could force the legislator's hands and strengthen him as a leader," says MacManus. "But there's an old saying in politics - don't call for something unless you can be sure you're going to pull it off. And he obviously didn't have the political will among the Republicans to call a special session - it just didn't work. And in a way, it made him look a bit weak."

Crist lost his Senate race to Rubio - and a new governor took over, with a new, less-confrontational attitude toward BP. On the one-year anniversary of the blowout, Rick Scott visited a Panama City shipyard to announce he wouldn't join a multi-state lawsuit.

"It's not in Florida's best interest to participate in that lawsuit," Scott said. "I've been talking with the attorney general, Pam Bondi, and we both believe the right thing - and it is the right thing - is to work directly with BP, and we're going to make sure our claims get paid, so it's the right thing to do."

Charlie Crist is still trying to ban drilling in state waters - this time, through a voter referendum. He spoke in February on the steps of the old state Capitol, promoting a referendum initiative for next year's ballot.

"It's so important for people to sign the petition," Crist said in Tallahassee. "Make sure that the people are heard. That if you want to protect Florida - if you want to do what's right for the future of our state - not only economically, but environmentally - then we've got to get this on the ballot so the people can simply decide."

But MacManus says recent polls show a majority of Floridians now support offshore drilling - mainly because of persistently high gas prices.

"Oil drilling is always going to be an issue in Florida," says MacManus. "And it's probably going to always be a very volatile issue, where opinions change - depending on the economic circumstance or the natural disaster. And that's what makes any kind of political solution to it extremely difficult.

As memories of the oil spill fade, she says high gas prices may put offshore drilling back on Florida's agenda.

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