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Crist tackles issues key to blacks, is praised by minorities PDF Print E-mail
Written by BRENDAN FARRINGTON   
Friday, 19 October 2007
Sample ImageTALLAHASSEE (AP) – In a marked change from his predecessors, Florida's new Republican governor is tackling many issues important to black voters, so much so that one black Democratic lawmaker calls him the state's first black governor.

Charlie Crist's agenda stands in sharp contrast to that of the national Republican Party, which has long had a contentious relationship with the black community and its leaders – most recently, when the party's four leading presidential candidates skipped a debate at a historically black college.

“Crist is much different than national Republicans,” said Matthew Corrigan, a University of North Florida political science professor. “In some ways, you could argue that he's done more on African-American issues than most Democrats have done recently.”

Since taking office in January, Crist has:

• Worked with the Cabinet to restore felons' voting rights after they complete their sentences, bringing Florida in line with most other states. The change has a disproportionate effect on blacks, who make up nearly half of new inmates.

• Pushed through a law that requires a paper trail for all ballots cast, helping allay fears that votes in black communities were being undercounted by computerized voting machines.

• Supported a bill awarding $5 million to the family of a black teenager who died after being roughed up by guards at a boot camp for juvenile offenders.

• Addressed the state's NAACP convention, the first Republican governor to accept the group's invitation.
“He pledged he was going to be a governor for all the people and so far, from everything I've seen, that's what he's been doing,” said state Sen. Tony Hill, a black Democrat.

Seven years ago, Hill and another black legislator, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, staged a sit-in to get an audience with former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who had refused to meet with them before ending affirmative action in state hiring and university admissions. But Hill met with Crist on back-to-back days this month to talk about anti-gang programs, appointments, health care and a possible humanitarian trip to Haiti.

Blacks make up 15.7 percent of Florida's population and nearly a quarter of the state's registered Democrats. But they constitute less than 2 percent of the state's registered Republicans.

Still, Crist courted the black community during last year's campaign. He went to churches, soul-food restaurants and community centers and was well received. He often mentioned that in the 1960s his father, a physician and school board member in then-segregated St. Petersburg, volunteered to be the team doctor for a black high school's football team, teaching him a lesson about racial tolerance.

At one event, about 75 people came to see him at a restaurant in a predominantly black Jacksonville neighborhood. The place was covered with Crist signs, and a Crist campaign billboard was posted across the street. The enthusiasm was electric as Crist walked through the room.

Democrats predicted Crist's outreach to black voters wouldn't work and accused him of pandering. But Crist earned 18 percent of the black vote, triple what Bush received in his 2002 re-election and double what a Republican typically receives in a statewide election.

Since then, Crist has worked to convince black Floridians that his efforts weren't just an election-year tactic. He met with black leaders in Jacksonville to talk about the city's violence, spoke to the NAACP, attended a legislative black caucus banquet where he was given a hero's welcome and volunteered to serve as the United Negro College Fund's Florida fundraising campaign chairman.

“Charlie Crist has been a friend to the African-American community even before he became governor,” said Democratic Rep. Terry Fields of Jacksonville, who referred to Crist as the state's “first black governor.”
Crist “made a commitment to a whole lot of us a long time ago, and he has been fair, he's been accessible, he has attended a lot of our meetings.”

Adora Obi Nweze, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Florida chapter, recalls in 2002 when the organization invited every statewide candidate to a forum. Crist, who was
running for attorney general, was the only candidate, Republican or Democrat, who attended.

“I will never forget it,” Crist said, when reminded of the event. “I was shocked and I said, ‘You should never be taken for granted. I will never do that, and I hope that my sincerity about that is evidenced by my presence here now. I'm here. I'm here for you, and I want your support.’ ”

Crist's actions aren't just to build support among black voters, said James Harris, a lobbyist who has done black voter outreach for Democratic U.S. senators.

“A lot of times there are political results attached, but I think he thinks: ‘These are the things as governor I should do.’ ”

“A lot of folks say that it is pandering. I just don't agree,” Harris added. “Folks who have had the opportunity to meet him really come away with the feeling that this guy cares.”

Photo: Governor Charlie Crist
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