A Florida gubernatorial candidate who won the governor’s mansion by appealing to the far right on everything from immigration to health care reform is singing a surprisingly different tune as he seeks office again. But it’s not former governor Charlie Crist, the Republican-turned-Democrat who’s changed his position on issues across the ideological landscape; it’s Crist’s successor, Gov. Rick Scott (R).
Scott, whose approval ratings are dismally underwater and who trails Crist in the governor’s race in most public polls, has said this week he will sign legislation allowing the children of undocumented workers to pay in-state tuition when they attend universities. He also signaled he will sign a measure to legalize the use of a medical marijuana extract to treat patients suffering from epilepsy and other diseases.
Both positions stand at odds with Scott’s earlier actions. In 2010, Scott advocated a crackdown on illegal immigrants living in Florida, on par with a similar bill that generated controversy in Arizona. Last year, he vetoed legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license.
And just a few months ago, Scott said he would vote against a ballot initiative that would legalize marijuana for medical uses.
“Having seen the terrible effects of alcohol and drug abuse first-hand, I cannot endorse sending Florida down this path, and I would personally vote against [the initiative],” Scott said in January. “No matter my personal beliefs, however, a ballot initiative would be up to the voters to decide.”
This week, Scott reversed himself. “I’m a parent and a grandparent,” Scott told the Associated Press. “I want to make sure my children, my grandchildren have access to the health care they want.”
Scott has even reversed himself on part of the Affordable Care Act. Scott initially said he would not move to expand Medicaid in Florida after the Supreme Court left the decision up to states. Less than a year later, in 2013, Scott said he would press legislators to expand Medicaid for three years.
“While the federal government is committed to paying 100 percent of the cost of new people in Medicaid, I cannot, in good conscience, deny the uninsured access to care,” Scott said at the time (The legislature has so far resisted Scott’s call to expand Medicaid.)
Democrats say Scott’s flip-flops are little more than an election year gambit for votes. “It’s fair to assume every decision he is making right now is to stay in office, and not for the people,” said Kevin Cate, a spokesman for Crist’s campaign.
Scott’s campaign said the governor has been clear about his priorities — “lower taxes for our families, lower tuition for our students and fair access to education for all Floridians,” said Greg Blair, a campaign spokesman. “Gov. Scott has delivered those major victories and will proudly spend the next six months comparing his accomplishments with Charlie Crist’s record.”
Scott is not a man of half-measures. His first foray into politics involved spending millions of his own dollars on advertisements against the Affordable Care Act. He spent $78 million more to win the governorship in 2010 and pushed a conservative-backed legislative agenda.
Now, facing daunting poll numbers — a Quinnipiac University survey released earlier this week showed Scott trailing Crist by 48 percent to 38 percent– Scott is reaching out to the center, and especially to Hispanic voters crucial to winning statewide in Florida.
Scott won a bare majority, 50 percent, of the Hispanic vote in 2010, when he beat Democrat Alex Sink by a single percentage point. The Quinnipiac poll showed Scott trailing Crist among Hispanics by a 46 percent to 28 percent margin. That alone could be enough to hand Crist the election.
Repairing the damage means embracing the in-state tuition bill: The Quinnipiac poll showed 55 percent of voters agreed that an illegal immigrant who attended high school in Florida should be allowed to pay in-state tuition at a state university.
It also means embracing medical marijuana. Some Democrats hoped that the initiative, which qualified for the ballot earlier this year, would drive turnout among younger voters, who are more likely to sit out midterm elections. A Quinnipiac poll from last year showed 82 percent of Floridians thought marijuana should be legal for medical use.
But don’t expect Crist to attack Scott’s evolving positions. After all, the candidate once known as “Chain Gang Charlie” now backs legalizing marijuana for medical uses.