Face to Face: A Conversation with Charlie Crist

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Florida's Attorney General discusses his priorities, the need to expand the state's civil rights law and his tan.

Q. As a state lawmaker, you were dubbed "Chain Gang Charlie." Now as Florida's attorney general, you're pushing to expand the state's civil rights law. Did we miss something in transition here?

A. I don't think so. Maybe by way of explanation -- the chain gang initiative was only an amendment that was adopted in the mid-'90s, and it was in conjunction with passing a bill called S.T.O.P., Stop Turning Out Prisoners, that mandates 85 percent of a sentence be served. It came about at a time when Florida was No. 1 in violent crime in America. A lot of good people, innocent, law-abiding Floridians, were being victimized by lawbreakers. And that's all it was about. It was trying to help and protect the innocent.

When you talk about the current initiative we have as it relates to civil rights, it's designed to ensure fairness, too. As was the move in the criminal justice arena back in the mid-'90s, it was about fairness to the innocent, civil rights is about fairness for all of our citizens as well. I think it's important, and I was surprised to learn that our civil rights laws in Florida today do less than what the federal civil rights laws do. I don't understand that. I'm the grandson of Greek immigrants and, to a much lesser degree than some in our society, my family has suffered some discrimination because of that status.

But it seems to me that modern Florida, the Florida that we live in today and we all want to live in, ought to at least recognize the federal standard as it relates to civil rights initiatives and make that a reality in Florida today.

And I've got to credit my predecessor, [former Attorney] General [Bob] Butterworth, because he had to do this in the past himself. I'm hopeful that we will be successful with it, because, well, let's look at the Thai Toni case in South Florida, where if you're an African-American and you go to the restaurant you automatically get a tip added to the bill. That's probably the best case to illustrate the importance of this initiative. The Florida statute requires an actual act of intimidation or coercion. The federal statute says "a pattern of practice." In the Thai Toni case, it wasn't coercion or an act of intimidation or direct threat, but by golly, it sure looked like a pattern of practice of discrimination. If we had that language in Florida, then our attorney general could bring that [case] and the long and the short of it is if I feel that there is a civil-rights violation, then it should be brought as a civil-rights action. To General Butterworth's credit, he was able to find a way to bring it as an economic crime, but I don't think we should have to do that.

Q. You took a lot of hits during the campaign for the office. What were the attributes that got you through that campaign and how will they serve you as attorney general?

A. I think a constant level of optimism and a strong belief in the goodness of people. A lot of times when you get into the rough and tumble of a political campaign, a lot of things get said that aren't always necessarily accurate. Hopefully, given enough information and an opportunity to visit with people all over the state, they can get a sense that you really care or not, and if you really care about them and issues that concern them.

One of the things General Butterworth -- again, he's been very good to me -- advised me is that when you campaign and ask people for their support, the issue is them. The issue is people and what you want to do for them. It's not so much about look at me. This is what I've done. I've done this or that. They want someone who will fight for them, and hopefully I think the way it's turned out is that they understand that I'll fight for them.

Q. I've read that you are pretty good at evaluating a client and assessing that client's needs. Now that Florida is your client, give me a thumbnail assessment of where we are with the state.

A. Well, we have a lot of challenges, I don't think there's any question about it. Florida is a wonderful place. We have tremendous diversity. We have an economy that needs help, but we're doing better than a lot of other states, and we're a beautiful state.

As I travel around the state, the things that people talk about to me are that they want Florida to remain safe, they want to maintain the beauty that makes Florida special, and by the way to support this industry called tourism that's real important to jobs for working people. And they obviously care about education, for the betterment of their children, so they can have a good opportunity in the future. Those are the kinds of things the client -- the people -- care about.

They want fairness as it relates to the price of gas they have to pay. They don't want to be gouged, and we aim to be there to fight for them.

Q. What are your priorities during your first legislative session, and how do you think you're faring, particularly in the Florida House?

A. The priorities are to get this civil rights initiative passed. That is issue No. 1, and I'm pretty optimistic about it. I've had an opportunity to talk to the speaker, the Senate president and the governor and they've all indicated their support for the legislation. So I'm hopeful it's going to pass. And identity theft is one that we're pushing very hard to increase the penalties for, because a lot more of our citizens are suffering because of that crime. It's the fastest growing crime in our state and in America. But we think that's going to go pretty well, too.

And then prescription drugs. We had a grand jury that released an interim report on adulteration of prescription drugs, particularly as it relates to our senior citizens. One of the most heinous crimes that I've seen involves the drug Taxol, which treats cancer patients. In some instances, someone along the way will reduce the actual dosage, but yet still charge the same amount, and this is a patient who's counting on that drug for his or her very survival. So we're hoping the prescription drug initiative will also pass, as it relates to the penalties for adulterating drugs that follow the chain of custody from the manufacturer to the patient.

Q. You're the first Republican to hold this office in a long time. We have no reason to worry that the office suddenly will march in lockstep with the governor or the party, do we?

A. No, we don't. Campaigns can take on their own flavor and style. But, once the campaign is over, it's time to govern and be the attorney general for all the people. It doesn't matter to me what party somebody belongs to or doesn't belong to. The point is that we're almost 17 million people that make up this state and to fight for them and to make sure that their rights are protected. Partisanship doesn't play a role in that. Public service does. That's what we're trying to focus on and we hope that we'll do a good job.

Q. I admit I was surprised when you announced your office was considering examining the gas companies for price gouging. Wasn't there a group of supporters during the campaign who had hoped for a less activist attorney general?

A. Yeah. I think there was certainly that perception. I know responding to questions in the course of the campaign that General Butterworth was viewed as a pretty active attorney general, fighting for consumer issues. If you look at the record, though, I've sued power companies as a member of the state Senate and tried to fight for consumer issues in the past. So it shouldn't really come as a surprise -- given the totality of the record rather than, I think, the perception -- that trying to fight on behalf of the people is something that is in my heart. It's real.

Maybe some of it comes from my background. My grandfather [Adam Christodolous] didn't have much of an education. He only attended the third grade in Greece, where he was born. He couldn't speak the [English] language. He didn't know anybody. He just wanted to work and have an opportunity. He came here and for $5 a month, he shined shoes. He always impressed upon me, and obviously my father, about the importance of opportunity and treating people right. My father applied to medical school and interviewed at one in Philadelphia. He was told that he had good grades, but they were sorry because they had had enough southern Europeans.

It's about people and they are our clients and I want to fight for them. I don't want to do it just for the sake of doing it, but when there's a wrong we ought to try and right it.

Q. Consumer issues were a Butterworth stamp on the office. Are there any initiatives that ultimately will bring your mark as attorney general?

A. Well, there are certainly possibilities that are out there. I am concerned about health care and I'm concerned about fraud in the health care arena. I think it's a significant problem in our state but I don't want to conclude that. I can only tell you that it is important to our population that we have a very good health care system that delivers services in an honest way. We'll remain vigilant about that.

Q. One of your jobs is to protect the state in court. With all the controversy surrounding the Florida Legislature's adopting the recent round of constitutional amendments, do you foresee any time when you may have to go to the governor and the Legislature with legal advice that they may not want to hear?

A. There may be, as it relates to some of the amendments. It's possible there may be interpretations that will be required down the road.

There's one right now that we've already weighed in on -- not in a formal way, and I hope we don't have to -- but the amendment that says that in order for an exemption to be created to the public records law there must be a two-thirds vote of both houses. I believe in open government and it's fundamental to me.

Some people believe that all it takes is a majority vote on those exemptions that existed before the passage of the constitutional amendment that are now coming up for review and possible sunset. I have a different view. Those votes that are taken now obviously are coming up after November when the people voted to make the change. It hasn't come up and it wouldn't unless the full House or Senate made a change without the full two-thirds vote. Hopefully, that won't happen, but if it does, we'll address it.

Q. I've got to ask about the latest efforts to have the state take over the courts. Now that you're on this side of the street, are you happy with the pace of the reform?

A. The chief justice has handled the lead on this issue very effectively. The Article V issue has been a difficult one for a long time. It's been a shared thing with a shift back toward the state. The legislative session is still continuing and hope springs eternal. I'm hopeful that we'll have a good conclusion before this session ends.

Q. Let me close on a lighter note. Why aren't there more Tallahassee politicians with decent tans?

A. I appreciate that one. It's probably because their ancestors aren't Greek. It's always interesting to me. In fact, the subject came up during the campaign at one of the debates. One of my opponents made mention of it, and I said, "For someone running for attorney general, I think the notion of pointing out the complexion or color of someone else's skin would not be something you'd want highlighted in this debate." That stopped it, but it was interesting.

The reality is because of my heritage -- I'm Irish on my mother's side -- I can go out in the sun for a half hour and seem like I've been out in the sun for four. It's just the pigment in my skin. It is what it is.

BACKGROUND

A fixture in Florida politics, Charles J. Crist was elected to the Florida Senate in 1992. Seven years later, he was appointed deputy secretary to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. In 2000, he won a statewide race to become the state's commissioner of eduction. He was elected attorney general in November. His tenure in state politics hasn't come without controversy. The state election commission recently cleared Crist of ethics violations charges, stemming from allegations that he campaigned while traveling as education commissioner.

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