Is Jeb ally Hoffman trying to kneecap Charlie Crist? Plus: Cillizza gets it wrong

It’s Miami-Dade day in Tallahassee, and there’s lots of Charlie love in the air among the Dade delegation … and also lots of Cristian news rattling around, as the “will he or won’t he” political parlor game shows no signs of slowing down. Also, The Fix’s Chris Cillizza explains why Charlie Crist is no Joe Lieberman, and get it right, and oh, so wrong. More on that later. For now, let’s start with Al Hoffman, the former RNC chair, Dubya’s Ambassador to Portugal, and a big-time John McCain bundler who floated this sugarplum this afternoon (which was duly shopped to me by forces friendly to the competition):

“They had Jim Greer’s travel expense records and wanted me to react to some of the issues surrounding that debacle. … There wasn’t one single question asked about Marco Rubio. There were a lot of questions asked about Jim Greer, (former party executive director) Delmar Johnson, Victory Strategies (the Johnson/Greer company paid by the party) and the (Greer) 527,” said Hoffman, who recently asked Charlie Crist to refund his contributions and who expects to help Rubio. “Definitely they asked about the relationship between the Crist campaign and the party, relative to the co-mingling of funds. … I believe they’re after any federal election law violations, tax avoidance issues, and criminal fraud.”

Not that I’m calling Ambassador Hoffman a liar, but … … he is a Jeb Bush ally, and there’s absolutely zero in the reporting from the St. Pete Times or Herald to back this up. I contacted the FBI local office, and of course they don’t comment on these things. But I have to say, I don’t see how Crist would be germain to the RPOF investigations since, and this is important, Crist didn’t have a Republican Party of Florida American Express card. The idea that Crist somehow induced sitting state Senators and Representatives to spend money themselves and through their staffs is kind of silly to me, honestly. And Crist’s only connection to this multi-headed hydra of a federal case is that he appointed Jim Greer, and may have been lied to by Ran Sansom. I see him as more a potential witness than a potential defendant. But that’s just me … And again, Hoffman is not an unbiased source. From a 2005 Public Citizen profile:

West Point graduate Al Hoffman heads Watermark Communities, which builds luxury golf-centered retirement communities.One of Florida’s largest developers, selling $1.1 billion in homes in 2001, Hoffman is also one of the state’s largest owners of undeveloped land.Hoffman paid $550 million for Westinghouse’s real estate arm in 1996.The following year he paid $32 million for a Coral Gables yacht club hammered by Hurricane Andrew.He bought that property from Governor Jeb Bush’s ex-partner, Armando Codina, a leader of the right-wing Cuban American National Foundation.He headed both of George W. Bush’s presidential election fundraising efforts in Florida, was co-chair of the 2001 presidential inauguration and posted on his office wall a handwritten note from the president that says, “You are the man!”Referring to the high price of a dinner ticket to Bush’s inauguration, Hoffman told the Washington Post, “Look at it this way: It’s only $800 a course…And the coffee is free.”After serving as Republican National Committee Chair in 2001, Hoffman was appointed to the same post in 2003 following the resignation of Ranger Lewis Eisenberg.

Hoffman was finance chair of Jeb Bush’s 1998 and 2002 gubernatorial campaigns and heads the Jeb Bush’s Council of 100 business advisory group.“There’s no power on earth that can stop it!”is vintage Hoffman advice on development’s encroachment on the Florida Everglades.”It’s an inevitable tidal wave!”he told the Washington Post.While Hoffman thinks it cannot be stopped, he does think it can be sped up.One recommendation that Florida’s governor took from Hoffman was to study how to further promote Florida as a retirement haven.

(WCI Development is now bankrupt, BTW, yet another victim of the housing meltdown…) Hoffman is also the former chairman of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which provided the front line for Jeb Bush’s war on teachers via SB6, and was thus dissed, big time, by Crist’s veto pen. And he’s one of three corporate honchos tapped by RPOF chair John Thrasher — the main sponsor of SB6 and a newly minted Crist nemesis — to “clean up” the party’s AMEX mess. Last December, Hoffman all-but ordered Jim Greer to quit as RPOF chair (which made room for fellow Jeb ally John Thrasher.) Again, just sayin’ …

Meanwhile, on the “will he or won’t he” front: despite the outside possibility that the federal probe of Rubio will keep Crist in the GOP primary, that scenario is looking less and less likely. In fact, a writer at the Southern Political Report claims the “I didn’t leave my party, it left me” speech is already in the laptop… (hat tip to Peter Schorsch)

And now comes the part where I respectfully disagree with The Fix guy, Chris Cillizza. No, Charlie Crist is no Joe Lieberman (although you could argue that elected Republicans hate him right about now just as much as elected Democrats, plus the entire Democratic base, hate Joe.) But Cillizza’s reasoning is pretty hinky on all four points:

CILLIZZA: A real three way race“With Meek and former state House Speaker Marco Rubio (R) both running well-funded, serious efforts, Crist runs the real danger of lacking any sort of electoral base to depend on.”

Not quite. Florida’s voter base is nearly 1 quarter independents, and they don’t get to vote in the closed GOP primary. Crist potentially fills a moderate void in a purple state, and could draw both indies and Republicans fed up with their own party’s spending scandals, legislative overreach, and right wing drift. The governor was already popular with Democrats, who so far, have yet to go wild for Kendrick Meek. And while most D’s would ultimately go home, right now, Meek is only pulling 66 percent of them (per Quinnipiac.) Crist got a remarkable 22 percent of the Black vote when he ran for governor, and while he wouldn’t likely repeat that with an African-American Democrat in the race, he might do better than expected with both Black and Hispanic voters, particularly the growing number of both who are registered “no party affiliation.” Crist also retains the support of the NRA and of Florida law enforcement, who didn’t abandon “chain gang Charlie” over the Obama hug, and had no dog in the teacher tenure fight.

Also, Cillizza is ignoring a potentially huge new base for Crist — teachers and their allies, who I continue to hear making loud lovey dovey noises toward Crist. Teachers represent a sizeable voting bloc in Florida, and can mobilize statewide through their locals. I spoke to a source inside one of those locals today, who told me they’re hearing lots of members say they plan to switch parties to vote for Crist in a GOP primary as a thank-you for his SB6 veto, or vote, and campaign for Crist if he runs NPA. If that story plays out statewide, Crist wouldn’t go into November empty-handed.

CILLIZZA: Standing on principle - Losing on principle [re the Iraq war] made Lieberman a sympathetic — and hence electable — candidate in a general election. Crist will have a harder time making the “principled stand” justification if he switches as it will have come after months of polling showing him with next-to-no path to victory in the Republican primary against Rubio.”

Cillizza clearly hasn’t been in Florida lately, where Crist’s SB6 veto is seen as precisely that — a vote on principle — by teachers and their allies. The same source told me as much, and that teachers they’re talking to feel a tremendous sense of gratitude and loyalty toward Crist, and that includes those who feel that Kendrick Meek has been a good friend to teachers over the years, but who say in the here and now, they feel they’ve got to go with the governor. If and when Crist jumps, he won’t make it about the tea parties running him out of the GOP. He’ll make it about “putting the people of Florida before his party.” Bet on that. As the Tallahassee Democrat’s editorial board points out in a piece unambiguously titled “Run, Charlie, run“:

In truth, if ever an elected state governor could rightly claim that the party left him and not the other way around, it is Mr. Crist. The most conservative branch of the party tried to bully the governor into signing a bill it had rammed through the Legislature with almost no public input and without hearing from people within education circles on teacher merit pay.

… the public was overwhelmingly against Senate Bill 6, and Mr. Crist was, too, for one reason: It was bad for schools and schoolchildren, and if the GOP had bothered to listen, it also would have known the bill was flawed.

In vetoing Senate Bill 6, which would have installed a “merit-pay system” for teachers based largely on students’ test scores, Mr. Crist stood up to the most powerful members of the Florida Republican Party and some of the most powerful business leaders in the state. Now the backlash from the party has threatened the governor’s legislative agenda and cost him whatever chance he had of winning the party’s primary for the Senate.

In the end, Mr. Crist’s fatal flaw was that he truly believes it is the job of leaders to listen to the people, to place their agenda ahead of party loyalty. It is simply in his DNA. He has shown character — real character, not character designed by fancy marketing campaigns — by placing his own political future at risk in doing what he felt was right.

That’s pretty much what people are saying, no matter who I talk to (and I spent the weekend talking to a lot of teachers and parents, both D and R.) Sure, there are a handful of people saying Crist only vetoed the bill because he thought it was good politics, but everyone who has said that to me has been a Republican who supports Marco Rubio. Of course Crist made a political calculation in vetoing the teacher tenure bill, as Michael Putney points out here. He’s a politician. But the veto isn’t being read as political “in the streets.”

CILLIZZA: Show me the money - “Lieberman’s Democratic fundraising friends may have largely abandoned him once he decided to run as an independent but it didn’t really matter much because the Connecticut Senator had a built-in national Jewish fundraising base. And, that money base was never going to abandon Lieberman — their most loyal champion — no matter what party banner he ran under. Crist has no such national fundraising base and, as is evidenced by his lackluster ($1.1 million raised) last quarter, money follows momentum.”

A bit more true, except that again, Crist could potentially tap into the now up for grabs teachers unions, and neither the state’s Fraternal Order of Police nor the Police Benevolent Association have as yet shown signs they’re pulling their endorsements (Crist was this state’s attorney general and retains strong ties there, and not for nothing, but the police and fire unions benefited from the jobs saved by the stimulus just like the teachers did.) The WSJ is also reporting that Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez, the largest Florida county’s former top cop, says he’s standing with Crist no matter what, along with State Sen. Mike Fasano. Alvarez has his own popularity problems right now, but he brings with him the potential to deliver fellow  officers, and to act as a potential Crist surrogate in courting Hispanics (like Rubio, Alvarez is Cuban-American.) And you’d have to be here to know it, but Marco Rubio isn’t universally loved in the Cuban-American community … And there’s this, also from the Journal:

Other potential backers, according to Crist advisers, would be trial lawyers—a traditionally Democratic constituency—and the National Rifle Association, the Republican-leaning gun rights group that has long awarded Mr. Crist high marks. An NRA spokesman said the group is still evaluating the race.

(Rubio pissed off the NRA by refusing to bring legislation they wanted to the floor when he was speaker.)

On a national level, Crist has got to be thinking how he can gin up a wave of “moderate pride” among voters who are sick of the partisanship in Washington. A good online guru coupled with a strong centrist message could yet discover a “people based” fundraising base, a la Obama 2007-2008, rather than an ideological, corporate, or worse, Wall Street base, a la Rubio. And if Crist runs indie, his will instantly become the most talked about Senate candidate in America, even more so than Marco. So as Cillizza himself said, “money follows momentum.”

CILLIZZA: A ready-made consulting team - “It’s hard to imagine that Stuart Stevens and Russ Schriefer, Crist’s media consultants, or Glen Bolger, his pollster, would stick with him if he decided to go independent. (Bolger resigned as Sen. Arlen Specter‘s pollster when the Pennsylvania incumbent switched from the Republican to the Democratic party in 2009.) Crist’s switch would likely leave him without many of the people who have helped guide his political career to this point — an absence made all the worse by the fact that his longtime top adviser, George Lemieux, is otherwise occupied as a U.S. Senator through the end of the year.”

This is Cillizza’s strongest point, and Crist’s biggest problem. I’ve been saying for awhile now that his biggest challenge would be fielding a professional campaign team, in a world where consultants are strictly D or R (or they don’t work again.) But I could imagine a scenario where a more free-floating consultant with centrist beliefs, say a Mark McKinnon, or even someone from the orbit of Michael Bloomberg, who Cillizza mentions helped Lieberman, and who claims no allegiance to the GOP. Crist has options, and could even try to form an alliance with centrist pols like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who like Crist, embraced the stimulus and eschews knee-jerk party politics or Obama-bashing. Crist and Schwarzenegger are fellow RGA members, and I can’t imagine Crist wouldn’t reach out to him.

The bottom line is that Crist does have options. Not tons of them, but real ones. That said, no, he’s not Joe Lieberman. And thank goodness for that.

OK, two more quick news items before I release you from this interminable post:

One more over the side: Jeff Kotkamp, Crist’s mustachioed lieutenant governor and a candidate for A.G., says he won’t be supporting an independent Crist candidacy.

And Libertarian Alex Snitker, a favorite of Paulite (as opposed to Palinite) tea partiers, has qualified for the Senate race. A potentially important development if he manages to raise enough money to peel off votes, which would presumably come from Marco Rubio…

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One Response to Is Jeb ally Hoffman trying to kneecap Charlie Crist? Plus: Cillizza gets it wrong

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