One way DeSantis can attack Charlie Crist on his stellar Florida environmental record

Crist was ‘Gov. Green’ when he ran FL but he’s vulnerable on one point

September 1, 2022 7:00 am

The Florida Everglades as seen from the Tamiami Trail. Credit: Marc Ryckaert via Wikimedia Commons

To: Robert Watkins, Tampa

Dear Mr. Watkins,

Hi! I see that you’re the chairman of “Friends of Ron DeSantis” political action committee. I figured that means you’re the person who can advise the governor about how his reelection campaign is in peril.

I have a warning, but I also have a suggestion for him on how to deal with it.

I was going to write this letter to the governor’s campaign manager at what the DeSantis website lists as its campaign office at “Suite 345” at 301 West Platt Street in Tampa. But it turns out that’s just a UPS Store.

So, I am writing you instead. You’re in charge of collecting the cashola that bankrolls the campaign, and I hear he pays closest attention to the advice of the people who fork over the big bucks he needs so badly.

It’s too late for you to save him from some of his goofier mistakes — putting his balls up for sale, for instance, and his boneheaded election “fraud” sweep and, especially, that “Flop Gun” video.

Whooo-ee, that video! I guess someone thought it would be fun to stuff our dad-bodied Politico-in-Chief into a flight suit and pose him in a fighter plane cockpit. Not only did it tick off at least one real Navy pilot, it mostly reminded everyone of Mike Dukakis riding around in a tank.

“But the governor really is a Navy veteran!” some of his allies said. Yeah — as a lawyer, not a pilot. Dukakis served as an Army radio operator, not a tank crewman, so parallels abound. Let’s just agree that military cosplay among vote-seekers is a bad idea and move on.

Besides, that’s not what I wanted to warn you about. I wanted to warn you about this guy Charlie Crist, aka “the Tan Man,” whom the Democrats picked to challenge your candidate.

Specifically, I wanted to warn you about Crist’s environmental record. I’m sorry to tell you, it looks really good compared to your guy’s. But I see a way you can turn it against him.

And no, I’m not talking about his excessive electrical usage for that portable fan he carries around like he’s Beyonce.

DeSantis the Destroyer repents

First, let’s review why your guy may want to avoid talking much about his own environmental record: It — as the kids like to say these days — suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucks.

Gov. Ron DeSantis. Credit: governor’s office

But it’s better than it used to be! Remember in 2018 when the guv was just Congressman DeSantis, R-Obscurity? Back then, his voting record on environmental issues was so bad he could barely eke out a 2 percent rating out of 100 from the League of Conservation Voters.

He was DeSantis the Destroyer, the hard-right idealogue ready to smite any and all pro-environment measures. Hear him roar (tonight on Fox News)!

But you can’t run for Florida governor on an anti-environmental platform. Voters know that the environment is the economy in this state and, if you screw one up, you screw up the other.

A statewide candidate has to at least pay lip service to environmental causes and maybe pose for a few pictures while riding on an airboat.

Luckily for DeSantis, the guy he was running to succeed as governor was Rick “I Love the Smell of Red Tide in the Morning” Scott. He had the worst environmental record since Napoleon Broward personally cranked up a dredge to drain the Everglades.

In two terms, Scott dismantled the state’s growth management system, laid off scores of state environmental agency employees, and pushed regulators to end prosecution of polluters in favor of helping them. He even took sugar executives along on a trip to Spain while negotiating long-term leases with their companies.

DeSantis lucked out, too, in drawing as his GOP primary opponent Adam “Big Sugar Has Always Been My Best Buddy” Putnam in the middle of a major toxic algae bloom that some blamed on the sugar farmers.

By running as the anti-sugar guy and assuring everyone he’d solve the toxic algae crisis, DeSantis persuaded some people that he’d changed. He was no longer Destroyer DeSantis, the enemy of all that is natural. Now he was Do-right DeSantis, fixer of broken ecosystems.

After he won, he wrote an op-ed vowing he’d carry out all those environmental promises he’d made: “That means prioritizing environmental issues, like water quality and cleaning the environmental mess that has resulted in toxic blue-green algae and exacerbated red tide around the state.”

He didn’t mean it, though.

Jekyll vs. Hyde

His first year in office started well — at least, on the surface.

He booted a bunch of water board members whom he deemed to be too close to Big Sugar, replacing them with people who are not. He appointed a bunch of bona fide scientists to advise him on how to stop toxic algae blooms. He named a chief science officer and a chief resiliency officer.

algae bloom
A 2018 algae outbreak in Stuart, where Lake Okeechobee water is discharged. Credit: John Moran

But, meanwhile, he was quietly signing off on some of the Legislature’s worst bills. For instance, he signed one that blocked local governments from passing stronger ordinances to restrict the dumping of sludge from sewage treatment, aka “biosolids.”

And he signed into law the hated M-CORES toll road plan that would push three expensive, unwanted highways through undeveloped land all over the state. (Later, he also signed the bill that repealed two of the roads but kept the Northern Turnpike Extension.)

It was like dealing with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Jekyll would be the public face, protecting the environment, but then Hyde would creep around behind the scenes tearing it apart.

Since that first year, he’s been so busy attacking Disney and drag shows that he seemed to forget about that green stuff he said he would prioritize. For instance, he’s never prodded the Legislature to implement the recommendations of his toxic algae task force.

In 2018, when he was running, DeSantis told reporters he wanted quick action on stopping algae blooms.

“I don’t want to say we have to wait years to get progress,” he said then, according to a story in the Florida Times-Union.

But in an August story in, here’s what the governor’s current science adviser, Mark Rains of the University of South Florida, told the dejected members of his Blue-Green Algae Task Force about the lack of progress: “It’s going to take time. … We’re talking about decades.”

Spending money and that’s all

Frankly, I wonder if our governor has reverted to the Destructive DeSantis who served in Congress.

On the one hand, he’s spent millions buying land for the Florida Wildlife Corridor. He spent millions on climate “resiliency” projects to protect waterfront landowners form rising sea levels. He spent millions on Everglades restoration projects.

On the other, he’s made it clear that spending taxpayer money is ALL he plans to do.

While he’s spending to preserve land, he approved a bunch of measures that would benefit developers and wipe out more land worth preserving. He even gave his blessing to the state takeover of federal wetlands permitting, another gift to developers that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the state is handling wrong.

While he’s spending taxpayer funds on resilience, he’s refused to do any “left-wing stuff” that might hurt the fossil fuel industry. You’d think he’d want to combat the other symptoms of climate change, such as deadly heat and powerful hurricanes, but apparently not.

Recently, he’s even called for divesting the state pension fund from any investment that puts the environment ahead of profit. How cray-cray is that?

As for spending millions on the Everglades — heck, every governor does that. It’s a convenient cloak for politicians who want to appear friendly to the environment while doing it dirty. This practice started with Jeb “One Question Mark Short of An Interrobang” Bush 20 years ago, even as he was lowering water quality standards at the behest of the sugar barons.

A tractor pulls carts of cut sugar cane past cane fields set afire to aid with harvesting. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Meanwhile, DeSantis okayed putting a new road in the Glades. He kowtowed to Big Sugar on its practice of burning old sugar cane stalks, sending choking smoke and ash into minority communities. And he’s endorsed as the next agriculture commissioner Wilton Simpson, who’s been as big a suck-up to Big Sugar as Putnam ever was.

DeSantis has turned out be nearly as bad as Scott.

But don’t worry! You got this! Just look at Crist’s record and prepare to be dazzled by the brilliant idea I am about to give you.

‘Gov. Green’

Crist, in a way, is reversing DeSantis’ path to power like a political Benjamin Button. He used to be governor, now he’s a congressman.

Both grew up in Pinellas County. DeSantis grew up in Dunedin while Crist calls St. Petersburg home.

But where DeSantis got 2 percent, Congressman Crist earned a 100 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters last year.

When Crist was governor — well, he had issues. For instance, the guy he hand-picked to run the Florida Republican Party went to prison for using the party’s treasury like his personal ATM.

But his environmental record was so stellar, people dubbed him “Gov. Green.” (I know your folks would rather say he’s “Gov. Pinko” but that’s not what happened.)

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

He didn’t just spend money on the state’s environmental resources. He halted a developer-driven move by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to remove the manatee from the state’s endangered list.

He didn’t just approve funding for Everglades restoration and make a lot of noise about opposing Big Sugar. He proposed a massive state buyout of U.S. Sugar’s land to use it for restoring the flow of the River of Grass. One news story described this as the “death knell for Big Sugar.”

He even blocked a threat to the Everglades before it was built. At his urging, the Public Service Commission rejected a plan by the state’s largest utility, Florida Power & Light, to build a $5.7 billion coal-fired power plant near Everglades National Park. (Meanwhile DeSantis’ Public Service Commission has given Florida Power & Might — er, sorry, Light — almost everything it’s wanted.)

Speaking of FPL, you know that net-metering bill DeSantis vetoed recently that spared the state’s solar industry (although he said he was only doing it because of the cost)? Crist signed the bill creating solar net-metering in the first place.

And, unlike Scott (and DeSantis), he was never afraid to say the words “climate change.”

In his first State of the State address in 2007, Crist called climate change “one of the most important issues that we will face this century.” He pledged to “bring together the brightest minds” and “place our state at the forefront of a growing worldwide movement to reduce greenhouse gases.”

He convened a climate-change summit in Miami that attracted 600 participants. One was then-California Gov. Arnold “Ah-nold” Schwarzenegger, who proclaimed Crist a real-life action hero.

As if to prove that point, Crist signed a series of executive orders imposing far-reaching changes in the state’s energy policies, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2025 and mandating that statewide building codes seek a 15 percent energy-efficiency increase.

“I think that as a state, beautiful as Florida is, we need to be a leader controlling climate change and protecting our natural resources,” Crist said then. “It’s vital to Florida’s future.”

He even persuaded the Florida Legislature to pass a bill calling for the state to pursue “market-based solutions” to reduce greenhouse gases. In other words, Florida was going to set up a cap-and-trade system to limit emissions from power companies and other polluters, but also create a marketplace through which they can buy or trade credits to go over the limit.

But then — here’s where you catch him! — Crist lost interest in running Florida.

‘It’s Charlie’s fault’

In 2009, U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Gaffes Galore, abruptly resigned before his term was up. Crist wanted that job.

So instead of running for re-election and continuing his pro-environment policies, Crist sought the Senate seat. That meant he had to please Republican voters — he was a Republican then — and suddenly all those far-sighted things he was doing for Florida’s future fell by the wayside.

Crist lost to Marco Rubio, who was backed by both Big Sugar and the National Rifle Association. Meanwhile, Scott became governor. All that climate stuff went out the window. So did the Everglades buyout.

And when Crist subsequently ran again for his old job, FPL and the other utilities dumped loads of cash into the Scott campaign. They didn’t want to deal with all those climate policies Crist favored.

So, here’s my proposal, Mr. W: The DeSantis campaign makes a major ad buy in all the markets. The ad portrays just how awful Rick Scott was for Florida’s environment. Spell out how he messed up this special place. Even mention how he was behind a push to build golf courses in the state parks.

Then comes the punchline.

You flash on the screen one of those artificially darkened portraits that make politicians look like they’re on a wanted poster as the announcer says: “This was all Charlie Crist’s fault. If not for him, Rick Scott would NEVER have been in charge. Crist had a job to do. Instead, he went chasing after some other prize. You can’t trust him.”

I think it’s a pretty convincing argument, don’t you? It should prompt people to vote for DeSantis as a guy who won’t run off and leave Florida in the lurch. I mean, it’s not like he’s thinking about abandoning us in two years to run for some other office — is he?

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.