Gulf Disaster Spills Over Into Florida Politics Before the Gulf oil spill, a majority of Floridians supported offshore drilling. Now most residents oppose it. The spill has also helped Gov. Charlie Crist become more visible as he campaigns for the U.S. Senate.
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Gulf Disaster Spills Over Into Florida Politics

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Gulf Disaster Spills Over Into Florida Politics

Gulf Disaster Spills Over Into Florida Politics

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

A month and a half after the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico, the oil spill has arrived in Florida. Since last week, tar balls have been washing up on beaches in the Florida Panhandle. State officials are concerned about the impact on the environment, fishing and Florida's number one industry: tourism.

But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, even before the first tar ball washed ashore, the spill had already worked its way into state politics.

GREG ALLEN: For weeks, one story has dominated the news in Florida as it has around the country. But here, most days, the oil spill coverage also includes at least a brief appearance by the state's governor, Charlie Crist.

(Soundbite of conversations)

Unidentified Man #1: Thank you. Thank you, Governor.

Governor CHARLIE CRIST (Republican, Florida): Thank you.

Unidentified Man #2: We really appreciate it. Thank you.

Unidentified Woman: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Gov. CRIST: Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

ALLEN: At a meeting with fishermen and charter boat captains near St. Petersburg, Crist's welcome was even warmer than usual. Just about every day, he's somewhere in Florida, meeting with tourism officials, emergency management authorities or, as was the case over the weekend, walking the beach in Pensacola with singer-businessman Jimmy Buffett.

Gov. CRIST: And what he had to say was, look, he said, you know, people in Florida, we're tough. We've been through a lot together. We're going to continue to go through a lot together. He's just opening a hotel up there at sort of ground zero, if you will, on this thing. And they said: What are you going to do if this stuff comes here? He goes: I'm going to open up anyway. You know, we just continue to move forward.

ALLEN: Last week, Crist asked BP for an additional $100 million to study the threat posed by the oil to the state's waters and shoreline. That's on top of $50 million he requested and received from BP earlier in the week to cover the state's response to the spill.

Crist is Florida's governor, but he's also an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate. And right now, he's staying in front of the public daily without any overt campaigning.

To Alex Burgos, a spokesman for Crist's Republican opponent in the Senate race, Marco Rubio, it's more of the same. Burgos dismisses Crist as a politician more interested in photo ops than hands-on management.

Mr. ALEX BURGOS (Spokesman, Marco Rubio Campaign): In terms of Charlie Crist, he's doing what he's always done, which is seize opportunities to get in front of the media, hold press conferences and ultimately help put the spotlight on him and his efforts.

ALLEN: The oil spill in the Gulf also had a more immediate and potentially more far-reaching impact on Florida politics. It was the catalyst for an overnight turnaround in public opinion on offshore drilling. Before the spill, a majority of Floridians, like the country as a whole, supported it. Since the spill, while Americans in general have largely continued to support offshore drilling, Floridians have turned against it.

As it happened, at the time of the oil rig explosion, the legislature was poised to pass a bill allowing drilling in waters just three miles off Florida's coast.

Incoming president of the state Senate, Mike Haridopolos, says that's no longer the case.

State Senator MIKE HARIDOPOLOS (Republican, Florida): We have, as I put it, permanently tabled the issue. Until we know exactly what happened, we're going to kind of let it be.

ALLEN: Seizing on the shift in public opinion, anti-drilling activists now want a constitutional amendment that would ban offshore drilling in Florida waters.

Dan Gelber is a Democratic state senator and candidate for state attorney general.

State Senator DAN GELBER (Democrat, Florida): Imagine had that spill been gushing out thousands of barrels a day right off the coast within three or four miles of the coast. We would already see it on our beaches and we would have permanently stained and changed our economy and our extraordinary natural gifts.

ALLEN: Republicans have decried the constitutional amendment and a proposed special session of the legislature as pure politics - an example of elected officials using a catastrophe for political gain.

Governor Crist says he wants to convene the special session, but he's meeting resistance from Republicans in the state House. As time goes on, though, and tar balls find more and more Florida beaches, Crist believes the pressure will build.

Gov. CRIST: We all love our state. We all love Florida. And the closer this stuff gets to us, I think some of those members of the House are going to be persuaded to say enough's enough.

ALLEN: With the initial cleanup slated to continue for months at least, the oil spill and the government response are likely to remain in the news, and in Florida, at least, play a role in November's general election.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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