Environmental issues at forefront as Fla. gubernatorial race gets underway

Source: Daniel Bush, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, November 7, 2013

Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist approved a massive restoration project in the Florida Everglades before leaving office in 2011. His successor, Gov. Rick Scott (R), abandoned the plan after taking over. Crist created a sustainable land-use task force; Scott replaced it with an industry-friendly economic opportunity agency.

The divide between the two men goes beyond environmental policy. Scott is a staunch conservative, while Crist, a former Republican, switched to the Democratic Party last year in a move that his detractors say smacked of political opportunism.

But stark differences on issues from offshore drilling and mass transit to water management and renewable energy will play an important role in defining what is sure to be a contentious, expensive and closely watched governor’s race in 2014.

Crist highlighted his environmental agenda Monday in a speech at a campaign event in St. Petersburg, where he made the long-awaited announcement that he will run as a Democrat against Scott, a former health care executive who was elected in 2010 on a wave of tea party support.

Crist — who gave up his chance for re-election to mount a failed 2010 Senate run against now-Sen. Marco Rubio (R), first as a Republican, then as an independent — said he would back solar and wind energy projects and invest in infrastructure improvements, among other changes. Calling himself the “People’s Governor,” Crist asked supporters to give him another shot at running the state.

“You deserve a governor who wakes up every day thinking about you,” Crist said in his speech. “My record is pretty clear: putting the people first.”

Crist was elected governor in 2006 after serving in several lower state offices and showed a willingness from the start to reach across the aisle on environmental legislation.

He supported the Florida Public Services Commission’s 2007 decision to reject a proposed 1,960-megawatt coal-fired power plant near Lake Okeechobee. As a sign of gratitude, the Sierra Club’s Florida chapter honored him with its highest award in 2008.

That same year, Crist approved the purchase of 183,000 acres of land owned by the country’s largest sugar cane producer in an ambitious bid to help restore the Everglades. The $1.75 billion agreement would have been the largest land deal in state history.

But the deal never came to fruition as Crist shifted rightward in preparation for his Senate campaign in 2010. (He lost to Rubio by 19 points, after running as an independent candidate to avoid a Republican primary defeat.)

“Governor Crist did some very important things for the environment [his first two years in office], but then he backed down a little,” said Frank Jackalone, the Sierra Club Florida chapter’s senior organizer, “partly because he was still a Republican with a Legislature that was just not going to adopt those policies.”

That set the stage for Scott, a wealthy businessman who swept into office with a radically different environmental agenda.

Scott eliminated the Department of Community Affairs, which oversaw the state’s sustainable growth office, and replaced it with the Department of Economic Opportunity. The new agency is backing a highway expansion plan in the Everglades that is deeply unpopular with conservation groups, which fear it could cause significant environmental damage.

The governor also cut funding for water management districts and rejected more than $2 billion in federal funding for an 85-mile-long high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando.

The biggest blow to environmentalists came when Scott refused this month to sign off on a scaled-down version of the Everglades land deal. The plan, to purchase roughly 73,000 acres of sugar cane fields from U.S. Sugar Corp., would have restored the flow of water from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay and helped avoid a growing algae bloom crisis.

The state let an Oct. 12 deadline pass without signing the agreement and must now compete with private buyers for the property. If Scott wins re-election, Jackalone said, it’s likely the project will never be realized.

“We’ve seen Florida take a step backwards on environmental protection in the last three years,” Jackalone said. “That issue is a really big difference between Scott and Crist.”

The Sierra Club has not endorsed anyone in the race so far, and other left-leaning groups are also waiting to see how Crist will run as a Democrat. But recent polls show that he remains popular with voters two years after leaving office.

An Oct. 10 University of North Florida poll, released three weeks before Crist announced his candidacy, found that 44 percent of likely voters said they would back the ex-governor, compared to 40 percent backing Scott. The survey of 526 registered voters, taken Sept. 30 to Oct. 8, had a 4-point margin of error.

But while Crist is up, his lead is narrowing. Crist outpolled Scott 50 percent to 34 percent among registered voters in a Quinnipiac University survey released in March and has led by double digits in other polls taken earlier this year

His lead could shrink even more as Scott and outside groups pour money into the race. Scott spent $75 million of his own money on his 2010 victory and is expected to run a $100 million re-election campaign.

“I expect this race is going to be really close,” said Michael Binder, a University of North Florida political science professor. “If Crist can motivate folks on the left [he could win], but I don’t know if he’s going to do that.”

This week, the state Republican Party sent Crist a clear signal that it won’t give up on moderate voters without a fight.

During his speech in St. Petersburg, a plane flew by overhead with a banner promoting a new Florida GOP website that features Scott’s first attack ad of the campaign.

The ad calls Crist an “opportunist” and cites several Democrats — including former Vice President Al Gore — who were critical of his record as governor. “He has done nothing to create jobs,” former Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Thurman says in the ad. “[Crist’s] only core belief is personal ambition.”