By Gypsy C. Gallardo, Publisher, the Power Broker magazine
ST. PETERSBURG — Late last Wednesday I issued a public challenge on Facebook of newly-elected Congressman Charlie Crist (District 13) after global news site Politico.com reported Crist’s “praise” of president-elect Donald Trump and his apparently soft position on Trump’s selection of Steve Bannon to serve as White House Chief Strategist – a man described as “notoriously white nationalist” by former NAACP President Ben Jealous.
I wrote: “Charlie Crist seems to think alleged white supremacist Steve Bannon is passable as Trump’s chief strategist, according to news today. Not in my book! Crist won because the black community overwhelmingly supported him against David Jolly. We stood for him; he needs to stand for us!!”
In a follow-on post, I called on Crist to go “on the record” with a firm position AGAINST Trump’s pick of Bannon.”
What followed was a relative firestorm of comments from the community – many expressing outrage and pushing for an “unequivocal” statement by the former governor elected to the congressional seat just two weeks prior.
Theresa Jones wrote: “He should issue a public, unequivocal statement on the Bannon appointment. His constituents and the voters who elected him are due no less.” Jones is a member of the South St. Petersburg CRA Community Advisory Committee.
In short order, the community had its way. Via a text reply to me (which came within 30 minutes of my inquiry to the former governor), Crist returned with the statement “I’m very much, no to Steve Bannon!!”
According to Crist staffer Vito Sheeley, the new Congressman wants to reassure voters that he stands with his district in opposition to Bannon.
The pronouncement set off a wave of “thumbs up” messages from local voters.
But not all agreed with the push – in substance or tone. At least two community leaders delicately questioned why I’d picked this particular battle, tactically speaking. After all – they pointed out – Crist has no real power to influence Bannon’s appointment.
Several others diplomatically challenged why Crist’s modulated tone toward Bannon wasn’t acceptable to the community. As reported by Politico, Crist had said that Bannon “gives him pause” but that “the tandem hire of Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus to be chief of staff helps balance it out.“
To all who took part in the dialogue, here are three affirmations that arose from last week’s “line in the sand” advocacy by District 13 voters.
#1 The community push was strategically important
It’s a fair question to ask “why not keep your powder dry” for a battle where Crist has more power to influence. School Board Member Rene Flowers made known that she agreed with the push to hold Crist accountable, but clarified that Crist has no vote in Trump’s decision to bring Bannon aboard.
Community development expert Anthony Jones echoed Flowers’ thought: “Congress has no say over whom the new president chooses for his staff and personal advisors. He should save his energy for fighting those battles that matter.”
To this very valid line-of-thought, please know that my pressing Crist wasn’t a tactical move to push the levers of decision-making or to force Crist into battle mode.
It was a strategic “shot across the bow,” specifically aimed at setting the bar high for the newly-elected Congressman Crist who a) won because of the overwhelming support of the black community, and who b) happens to be one of the precious few locally who holds a seat that black voters have the ability to decide.
In addition to testing Crist’s mettle as a “check” against the political earthquake that a Trump presidency portends for African Americans and other minorities, South St. Petersburg needed to understand where Crist would seed his loyalties.
As I said to a reporter with SunshineStateNews.com, Crist is brand new to this Congressional seat and the seat itself is brand new to the community (following last year’s Supreme Court decision that cut us out of U.S. Representative Kathy Castor’s territory).
Those two factors combined made it important for Crist to know that “the African American community is watching him,” as one sister put it, and that we will indeed engage to hold him accountable.
#2 Why Crist’s middle-of-the-road position wasn’t good enough
Several Democratic activists called for patience and leeway for the new Congressman, asking gingerly why Crist’s words to Politico had set off such a flurry, and invoking fellow voters to “give him a chance.”
As businessman Mario Farias noted “One [of] the most written about things in the Bible is being prudent. Could it be that Congressman Elect Crist’s choice of words was just that? He did say that it gave him “pause” which shows he is concerned and pensive but not in any way did he imply supportive in my interpretation.”
Lucinda Johnston of the Suncoast Sierra Club saw Crist’s position as a “voice of reason,” writing that “When we interviewed Congressman Crist for an endorsement he talked at length about the need to end the gridlock … that permeates Washington D.C.” She added “I honestly believe that he will try to influence Trump and other Republicans…”
My response to this worthy sentiment is that Crist’s equivocating stance on Bannon was dangerous on two levels.
Leaving aside the fact that Crist’s position did not reflect the will of his constituency in St. Petersburg (and thus should have been challenged), Crist’s softness on Bannon had the potential to further stoke increasingly rancorous divides in St. Petersburg’s black community as well as to erode the already fragile trust of Crist among some African Americans.
What some outside the community may not understand, but should, is that Crist is distrusted or viewed with skepticism by a sizable share of the black electorate of South St. Petersburg, even among folks who voted for him this November.
The fact that Crist took a lion’s share of the black vote should not mislead outsiders to conclude that Crist was wholly embraced by the black community (though, to be clear, he does have a great many fans).
As one indicator of lukewarm support by some, Crist drew the fewest votes from St. Petersburg’s majority black precincts, among federal and state Democratic candidates.
He won 82 percent of votes in precincts where African Americans are a majority of voters – significantly less than the 89 percent won by Wengay Newton (State House) and Darryl Rouson (State Senate), and the 87 percent who went for Hillary Clinton.
The mixed feelings were more evident in last week’s Facebook comments. Entrepreneur Stephanie McNeal Brown voted for Crist but voiced that she’d always felt him to be “a political opportunist.”
NAACP officer Chico Cromartie – who supported Crist’s opponent David Jolly – was point blank: “Don’t cry now!!!!! Charlie Crist never wore sheep’s clothing…You gonna get everything you asked for.”
Crist’s vote share was also propped up by African Americans’ historic loyalty to the Democratic Party, as well as by voters less vested in the party, but who backed the Democrat as a check against Republicans’ balance of power in the U.S. Congress (they now hold a 57 percent majority).
Pressing Crist for a clear statement against Bannon served the dual purpose of reassuring his supporters that he will heed their voice, and of quelling the understandably doubtful and “I told you so” factions within the community.
The last thing we needed was for the freshman Congressman to validate the unfortunate “Crisco Crist” nickname he earned for his double switch in party affiliation since 2010 (from Republican to Independent to Democrat), or the “Chain Gang Charlie” moniker that’s stuck with him since the 1990s for his support of statewide legislation to authorize prison work gangs.
#3 At least one unifying message: Accountability is a priority
There was at least one unifying message that came from all sides during the two days of heated online debate: Accountability is key.
Bambi Jones, a local non-profit leader, put it this way “I campaigned for him and I still think he is the better choice,” referring to Crist, “However my support does not render a blank check on his decisions. Accountability is the key for elections and being re-elected.”
She, like Jones, called for an unflinching statement from Crist on the Bannon matter, saying, “You have to pick your battles and this is one.”
South St. Petersburg’s Sherry Howard posted: “Keep him accountable and transparent!”
Similar messages came from Brother John Muhammad, President of the Neighborhood Association of Childs Park, Dr. Reginald Ligon, dentist and former president of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and Canaan McCaslin, Special Assistant to Pinellas County Administrator Mark Woodward.
If the Trump election did anything for us, it has African Americans (and many others) energized to a new level of civic engagement.
Crist had the misfortune of becoming a focal point of local activism, but he can also benefit from the community’s heightened vigilance – both during the fights he will wage in Congress and for future election bids.
Facts about the new District 13
1. How we got here: District 13 was reshaped to include South St. Petersburg in late 2015 after the Florida Supreme Court ruled in favor of the League of Women Voters et al who’d opposed the district lines adopted in 2012 (on the grounds that they were influenced by Republican partisanship to limit the power of Democrats).
2. Where we came from: Before this election, much of South St. Petersburg was part of District 11, represented by the well-known, well-connected Democrat Kathy Castor who earned a reputation for responsiveness to the community. The late Bill Young represented District 13 until his death in 2013, when David Jolly won the seat in a special election.
3. Our influence in this year’s show-down: Former Governor Crist beat and unseated Congressman Jolly by a landslide in the black community. Across District 13, Crist won the day by a 4 point margin (52 percent to 48 percent), but in the majority black vote precincts in St. Petersburg, Jolly had his clock cleaned (82 percent Crist vs 18 percent Jolly).
Even more important for our community to understand: the black vote was decisive in this race. In total, Crist beat Jolly by 13,407 votes. In St. Petersburg’s majority black vote precincts, Crist won by 16,691 votes.