Florida's Crist Dealt Blow Over Offshore Drilling Ban

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist on the steps of the state Capitol. i i

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (center) participates in a rally on the steps of the old Capitol before the start of the special legislative session in Tallahassee on Tuesday. The demonstrators urged lawmakers to allow a constitutional amendment banning offshore oil drilling on the ballot. Ric Feld/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Ric Feld/AP
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist on the steps of the state Capitol.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (center) participates in a rally on the steps of the old Capitol before the start of the special legislative session in Tallahassee on Tuesday. The demonstrators urged lawmakers to allow a constitutional amendment banning offshore oil drilling on the ballot.

Ric Feld/AP

Polls show a majority of Floridians support Gov. Charlie Crist's call to put a ban on offshore drilling on the ballot. But that wasn't always the case.

Two years ago, years of high gas prices — and accident-free drilling in the Gulf — led a majority of Floridians and their governor to support drilling off Florida's coast.

But, as the saying goes, that was then.

Outside the state Capitol in Tallahassee on Tuesday, a couple of hundred people gathered for a rally calling on the Legislature to put the drilling ban on the ballot.

Crist was in the middle of the protesters, helping to lead the chanting. He's not just a former drilling supporter. He's also a former Republican — now running as an independent for the U.S. Senate.

Since he left the party a few months ago, Crist has been about as popular with Republicans as oil on Florida beaches.

Inside the Capitol, House Speaker Larry Cretul, a Republican, reluctantly convened a special session to ask lawmakers to consider the proposed constitutional amendment. But he soon made it clear he wasn't there to do Crist's bidding.

The governor's special session and the drilling ban, Cretul said, were more about politics than about helping Floridians. Of the governor's proposal, he said, it "will not put a single new skimmer off the beaches of our coast, won't produce any new boom to protect our coast, won't save a single business or create a single job."

Republicans pointed out that Florida already has a ban on drilling in state waters. That’s true, but a bill lifting the ban passed the House last year and, before the BP spill, it was gaining ground in the Senate.

Drilling proponents now promise they won't push to lift the ban for at least two years, so there's no reason to put it on the ballot in November. A few hours after the special session was convened, Republicans in both the House and Senate voted to adjourn without taking any action on the proposed amendment.

At a news conference shortly after, Crist was visibly angry, calling the Legislature's behavior "arrogant," "illogical" and "embarrassing."

Since he dropped out of the Republican Senate primary and declared himself an independent, Crist has increasingly reached out to Democrats. There's speculation that, if elected to the Senate, he'll even caucus with the Democrats.

Tuesday, he compared himself to a Democratic president.

"When President Truman was president," Crist recalled, "he called the Congress the do-nothing Congress. Well, I call this Legislature the do-nothing Legislature, and I'm going to give them hell for it."

Republican leaders say they have nothing against holding a special session on the oil spill. They plan to return, maybe in September, to consider economic measures that could help people and businesses hurt by the fallout from the spill. That would be too late to put anything on the ballot for voters in November, however, including a drilling ban.

After the adjournment, the leading proponent of offshore drilling in the House, Republican Dean Cannon, denied the action had anything to do with politics. About Crist, he'd say only: "Listen, he's got to do what he thinks is best. The legislative branch, I believe, is committed to getting real relief to the people."

Although the Republican leadership carried the day and Crist went away mad, it's not clear yet who the winners and losers are.

Ron Saunders, the incoming House minority leader, says he'll wait until November to tally the score. He says this vote may make a difference in coastal districts where he believes House Republicans are vulnerable.

"Anytime members of the Legislature ignore the will of the people, they do it at their own peril," he said. "And I think today we obviously have a record now of who we feel ignored the voices of the voters."

Crist is also likely to keep the issue alive. It's one that can help him reach out to Democrats and Independents — and to differentiate himself from his likely Republican Senate opponent, Marco Rubio, who supports offshore drilling.