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Why The Governor's Race In 2014 Poses A Quandary For Democratic Women


Nan Rich often riffs that she has an unfair advantage over Charlie Crist in the quest to oust incumbent Gov. Rick Scott.

"I'm a woman, a mom and a grandmother. Those are powerful things to be today in this state," Rich told Democrats gathered in Orlando for their state conference over the weekend.

Rich may have exaggerated her edge over Crist, a former Republican who will formally enter the race on Monday. But she isn't overstating the importance women voters have in determining who wins elections across the country, and especially in Florida.

And the match-up between lifelong-Democrat, female Rich and new-to-the-party, celebrity Crist poses a quandary for Democratic women whose chief objective is a Scott purge.

"It's a real conundrum for everybody," said Ruth's List Florida co-founder and CEO Ellis Robinson whose organization, a statewide version of the national Emily's List, raises money for progressive women candidates.

Women outnumber men among registered Democrats in the state. And for many women, Rich is the obvious choice in the governor's race. The former state Senate minority leader has a long record of supporting issues often identified with women voters, including abortion rights, education and health care.

"If the primary is based on who has the longest strongest record of advocating for women, it would be Nan Rich. She's done everything and been there on women's issues. But I don't know that that's where this race is going to go," said former Florida Education Commissioner Betty Castor, a trailblazer in women's politics in the state who also served as president of the University of South Florida.

Castor said women are divided between those who want to back Crist because they believe he is a potential winner and those who remain skeptical of his conversion to the Democratic Party.

Rich has gathered about $215,000 and spent more than $153,000 as of Oct. 1, according to state campaign documents. Crist, a former governor with ties to President Obama, the Clintons and Democratic supporters in California and New York, is expected to easily out-raise Rich in his first monthly campaign report, due in early December.

"I think that one of the reasons that unfortunately Nan is not doing better in her fundraising is simply that people don't see her as a winner. That's unfortunate. Charlie has so much more name recognition and he has been out there and he is a very likeable person," Castor said. "You have the larger group of Democratic women who say we just we want a winner, and he looks like a winner. And there's that group that are not quite convinced. That's the way it is right now."

Credit facebook.com/charliecrist
Charlie Crist

Crist's challenge in the primary is to win over female voters so they will be enthusiastic enough to work for him in the general election, Castor said.

"Because a lot of those women we're talking about are strategic women. They work hard and they have their lists," she said.

Castor, who lives in Tampa, said she does not know when she will endorse a candidate.

"Because Charlie is close to home, I feel comfortable with him. But I like Nan," she said.

The choice for Mary Freeman, president of the Pinellas County Democratic Women's Club, based in Crist's home county, is clear.

"(Rich) is perfect. She's a Democrat. She's a woman. She's got experience. She's got what it takes. So we like her very much," she said.

Freeman called the Crist dominance before even entering the race a frustration.

"On one hand, you have someone who has a lot of experience at being a Democrat, being in the House, being minority leader. And then you've got someone who has a lot of experience at being a Republican. We don't know what he would be like as a Democrat," she said.

Rich boasts of her bona fides in speeches as she travels across the state, where she's made more than 200 stops thus far.

Rich used her gender during the weekend party conference to try to win over supporters at the LGBT caucus, many of whose members are already big fans because of Rich's years-long attempts to do away with a ban on gay adoption, eventually ruled unconstitutional by a Florida judge, as well as her advocacy for other gay rights issues.

Rich addressed the caucus in a small room where Crist was sitting cross-legged on the floor directly in front of his soon-to-be primary opponent.

"We've never had a woman governor and I think our state shows it. A woman has different priorities, whether it's education, whether it's women's reproductive rights, whether it's gay rights, whatever those issues may be. I believe very strongly that we bring different sensitivities and different priorities," Rich said.

"I am a person …that cares about issues. I care about priorities. And I care about finding solutions to those issues. That's what I will bring as governor. And just as I was elected first woman leader of the Senate Democrats, I feel very strongly with your support and your votes I will be the first woman elected to be governor of the state of Florida," she added.

Earlier, Crist made a pitch to the women's caucus that revealed the kind of courtship the populist will employ once his candidacy is official.

He began with the story of growing up with three sisters --- "I was raised by women pretty much" --- and departed from his usual remarks by launching into the story of Terri Schiavo. Crist was Florida's attorney general during a contentious battle between then-Gov. Jeb Bush and Schiavo's husband, Michael, who was trying to have the brain-damaged woman removed from a feeding tube.

Crist said that "the governor's office at the time" wanted the attorney general's office to get involved in the legal fight.

"I refused because I just didn't think it was right. And I took some grief from my former party for standing up and having the courage," Crist said.

Crist then reminded the women that, as governor, he vetoed a bill that would have required women to have ultrasounds before abortions. Scott later signed a similar bill into law.

"That's why I'm saying please judge my deeds and not what others say about me. I am who I am not what others say I am. You can count on it by what I've done," Crist said. "Please give me a chance because I have fought for you before, before I was one of you, even. And now I am one of you and I'll fight even harder."

"You're a woman?" Elizabeth Corwin of Tampa asked.

"I'm a Democrat. Proud to be a Democrat. Damn proud to be a Democrat," Crist responded.

Later, Corwin said she was on the fence about which candidate to support.

"He hasn't convinced me that he can represent me," she said. But, she added, "I know we have to be Scott-free in 2014."

Other activists tried to be pragmatic. Scott, a political unknown three years ago, defeated Democrat Alex Sink by about 1 percentage point. The governor now has a record Democrats can run against.

Seeta Begui, a nurse from conservative Brevard County who hosts a local radio show sandwiched between Mike Huckabee and Sean Hannity, said she is taking a logical approach to the race. She recalled a much-ballyhooed hug between then-governor Crist and Obama as evidence that Crist was willing to risk the GOP's vengeance to do what he believed was right.

"It takes a great person to say I'm switching my party, I'm walking over to your side. That hug cost him a lot of votes," Begui said.

Begui said she likes Rich and appreciates her work on progressive issues.

"But at the same time we have to put emotions aside. It comes down to which candidate is better suited to run for the governor's office and win. It takes money to run this campaign," she said. "We have to be logical and very practical about this. If we don't throw our support behind the candidate that we know is going to be able to raise enough money and tackle the tough issues as well, then we're not going to win."

Some Democratic strategists are hoping Rich will drop out of the race to avoid an ugly primary. But Rich has given no indication that she will do so, saying she is in it for the long haul.

And pushing Rich out could backfire for Democrats. Many older women who supported Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential primary against Obama are still smarting over her treatment by the Democratic establishment.

"I heard it over and over again from older women. They will of course support the Democratic ticket. But they really are disgusted with the party leaders and donors that they aren't helping Nan and that it's more about winning than it is about principles," said University of South Florida political-science professor Susan MacManus.

Robinson, the Ruth's List co-founder, recently moved into Bayfront Towers where Crist and his wife Carole own a downtown condo overlooking the water.

She said the Crists are cordial and friendly when on the elevator. Crist was unaware of Robinson, or her organization, when asked about his neighbor recently. Before the conversation was over, he had obtained her telephone number.

Robinson said her organization has not endorsed and that Crist has not really entered the race yet.

"It's going to be a difficult call. We're still waiting to be convinced that Charlie Crist is going to be protective of women's reproductive rights. That's a piece that's very important," she said.

Crist calls himself "pro-life" and never used the word "abortion" when discussing the issue over the weekend.

"I don't know a person on the planet that isn't pro-life. The notion that elements of the Republican Party have harnessed that term is offensive. But while I am personally pro-life, I would not impose my will, nor should anyone else impose their will on others," Crist said in an interview this week. "When it comes to personal health decisions, I respect a woman's right to make that decision. And I've never infringed upon it or tried to. I'm a live and let live kind of guy."