Dan Morain

A Sacramento consultant, the Florida court, and control of Congress

Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club last week.
Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club last week. dmorain@sacbee.com

Charlie Crist, the ex-Republican, ex-governor and current Democrat from Florida, was working the crowd at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club last week and running for Congress.

He didn’t know it, but Sacramento campaign consultant Steve Smith helped open his path to a comeback.

I happened to be in the room as the well-tanned politician schmoozed. Political junkie that I am, I introduced myself. Good politician that he is, he treated me like a confidant and dished a little about one of his old rivals, Marco Rubio.

Crist was elected Florida governor as a Republican in 2006, lost the U.S. Senate race to Rubio as an independent in 2010, endorsed Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, and as a Democrat failed to unseat his successor, the climate change-denying Gov. Rick Scott, last year.

Although the election is a year away, Crist is said to be the front-runner in the race for Florida’s 13th Congressional District, which encompasses St. Petersburg, where he has a waterfront condo.

The reason has everything to do with a topic that Californians have come to know well: redistricting intended to make congressional lines less partisan.

Crist’s candidacy also provides a lesson in why the makeup of a state supreme court 3,000 miles away matters – which is where Smith comes in – and on the threat posed to democracy by attempts often orchestrated by partisan conservatives to unseat justices not to their liking.

As happened in many states after the Republican electoral victories of 2010, the Republican-controlled Legislature in Florida drew congressional district lines in ways that protected Republicans.

Although Democratic voters outnumber Republicans in Florida, 17 of Florida’s 27 congressional members are Republicans and 10 are Democrats. Not for long.

By a 5-2 vote, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Republican-drawn lines violated a voter-approved constitutional provision requiring that lawmakers “redistrict in a manner that prohibits favoritism or discrimination.” The justices took particular umbrage with the 13th Congressional District.

Republican legislators had isolated Democratic and African American neighborhoods of St. Petersburg by concocting a district that includes heavily Republican enclaves across Tampa Bay, not a small body of water. The court’s decision required that the 13th District lines be redrawn so that the Democrats remain in St. Pete, on Crist’s side of the bay.

Seeing that the new lines would favor Democrats, Republican incumbent Rep. David Jolly is stepping aside, and running to replace presidential candidate Rubio in the U.S. Senate.

“When the Florida Supreme Court ruled, it changed everything. It made every difference in the world,” Crist told me.

For that, Smith can take a measure of credit.

In 2012, the Florida Republican Party, seeing a chance that Republican Gov. Scott could pack the court, opposed the retention of three justices, R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince.

Americans for Prosperity, a political operation funded by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, pitched in by airing ads attacking the justices over a ruling that removed from the Florida ballot a vote related to Obamacare, which the Kochs despise.

A group of lawyers responded by establishing an independent campaign organization called Defend Justice from Politics, and hiring Smith.

“What do the politicians in Tallahassee want? Absolute power, even over our courts,” one of the Defend Justice ads said. “Stand up for our justices against this political power grab.”

The $3.1 million effort clearly helped. Florida voters retained the justices. And in July, the three targeted justices helped form the majority that threw out the gerrymandered congressional districts.

At this point in his career, Smith only takes campaigns he truly cares about. Certainly, he wears his hair a little longer than when he was Gray Davis’ labor secretary, and later when he helped run the Dewey Square consultancy shop in Sacramento. Although his job no longer is the biggest handicap to his golf game, he was in Wichita when I caught up with him by phone.

There, he was making plans to defend five moderate Kansas Supreme Court justices against a coming onslaught led by conservative Gov. Sam Brownback in 2016. In 2014, Smith was in Tennessee helping to defend three justices appointed by a Democratic governor.

“So far, I’m undefeated. We’ll see how long that lasts,” Smith told me.

The nonprofit organization Justice At State, which tries to defend courts against partisan assaults, counts $90.1 million spent on supreme court races since 2011.

The Republican State Leadership Committee had made its name by winning Republican control of statehouses, understanding that governors and legislatures are responsible for the decennial redistricting. Not coincidentally, the nonprofit political operation lately has taken to targeting courts.

The Florida Supreme Court’s decision could cost Republicans three, maybe four of the 17 congressional seats they hold. That won’t end Republican control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Too many other legislatures have gerrymandered too many other districts to protect incumbents.

But if Crist happens to win a congressional seat in Florida, he may want to thank a consultant from Sacramento who fought a good fight that, by the way, isn’t entirely over: Last week, a Florida Republican introduced a bill to impose term limits on Supreme Court justices.

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