Eight years ago, state Rep. Terry Fields, a Democrat, threw his arm around newly inaugurated Gov. Charlie Crist and delivered a proclamation that stunned even the then-Republican’s staunchest supporters.
“He’s the first black governor of the state of Florida,” Fields crowed.
Fields’ embrace didn’t achieve the infamy a later hug with the nation’s first black president earned Crist among Republicans.
But, nearly a decade later, Crist is banking on Fields’ characterization to help win his old job back.
The Democratic nominee for governor is courting black voters at churches and community centers and in roundtable meetings throughout the state.
“I’m asking for your help. I’m asking for your vote. Because this I know to be true — when we vote, we win,” Crist told a packed house at Tallahassee’s Bethel AME Church on a recent Sunday, one of five services at black churches he attended before a barbecue that drew about 100 black supporters in nearby Quincy.
For Crist and his campaign team, increasing turnout among black voters, who reliably cast ballots for Democrats in presidential elections but are less likely to vote in midterm elections like this year, is considered essential for financial underdog Crist to defeat Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
“It’s critical. It’s critical. It’s crucial,” Crist told The News Service of Florida after he visited with black campaign volunteers in Jacksonville this week. “And Hispanics. And women. Critical. They’ve got to get out. And I think they’re going to get out.”
Speaking to black audiences, Crist invariably highlights one of his early achievements as governor: convincing the Florida Cabinet to approve “automatic” restoration of rights — including the right to vote, for non-violent felons who met certain conditions. About 150,000 ex-offenders had their rights restored during Crist’s four years in office.
In contrast, in one of Scott’s first actions after taking office, the Republican — backed by the Cabinet — imposed some of the country’s most stringent restrictions on rights restoration. Offenders now must wait a minimum of five years after being released from prison before they can apply to have their rights restored. In introducing the change in 2011, Scott said felons seeking restoration of their rights “must show they desire and deserve clemency by applying only after they have shown they are willing to abide by the law.”
With more than 1.5 million ex-offenders — many of them black — unable to cast ballots, restoration of rights resonates with African-Americans perhaps more than any other issue because it is linked to the hard-fought struggle over procuring the right to vote for all black citizens.
“It’s very huge because they look at what Charlie did and what Scott did. Scott wants to go backwards,” said Jimmie Card, a Jacksonville Crist campaign volunteer, who participated in the civil-rights movement.
“(Crist) is a person that believes in helping people of color. He loves the people. He has a better eye on the people’s needs,” Card, 69, said. “Scott only cares about the rich and the wealthy. Republicans don’t care about us. I’ve seen that all my life.”
Black voters may identify more with Crist, who appointed NAACP Florida leader Adora Obi Nweze as his “special adviser on minority affairs” within months of taking office after the 2006 election, but getting them to prove it is Crist’s biggest challenge as Election Day looms.
To that end, Crist has assembled a campaign team loaded with staff who led a data-driven ground operation for President Barack Obama that secured two White House wins in “purple” swing state Florida.
“I hate the term Obama-style field organization. What the president was able to do was put in place … scale of infrastructure and computers nobody had ever been able to do. We haven’t built an Obama field organization. But we’ve built a competent organization that is significant in scale in the places where we need to turn out votes,” said Democratic consultant Steve Schale, who ran Obama’s Florida campaign in 2008 and is now an adviser to Crist.
The team is micro-targeting black voters who cast ballots in the past two presidential elections but did not show up at the polls in the last governor’s race, when Scott defeated Democrat Alex Sink by fewer than 62,000 votes.
“That’s who we talk to every day,” Schale said. “The bulk of the turnout operation, not only the one that we’re doing but the outside groups, are trying to mobilize voters with a voting history. We know there are more Democrats in the state than Republicans, so if more Democrats than Republicans show up to vote, we’re going to win.”
About 450,000 black voters cast ballots in either 2008 or 2012 — including 250,000 who voted in both elections — but not in 2010, when African-Americans made up about 11 percent of the people who voted in the governor’s race, according to Schale.
Boosting that to 12 percent this year would equate to another 98,000 ballots, Schale said. And if Crist captured 90 percent, or 88,000, of those voters, that would be enough to cover Scott’s margin of victory four years ago when the incumbent garnered just shy of 49 percent of the vote compared to Sink’s 47.7 percent.
“Getting some marginal share of that unlikely voter universe to fill up those polls and vote is clearly a big part of how we get from 47-and-a-half to 50 percent, which is the goal,” Schale said.
In Duval County, where Crist campaigned Wednesday, fewer than 45 percent of active black voters cast ballots in 2010. Moving just 25 percent of those voters could gain Crist roughly 11,500 votes.
Groups unaffiliated with Crist’s campaign, including non-partisan organizations like the NAACP, are also mobilizing black voters. The NAACP in Florida registered 18,000 new voters before the deadline earlier this month, and is now holding community forums aimed at exciting voters about issues.
The NAACP is also targeting down-ticket races in which black voters could have an impact on the outcome of the election, said Kevin Myles, a regional field director for the national NAACP.
“We have the plan and we have the foot soldiers on the ground. So even though we’re not going to be able to prevent any contraction of the electorate, we have good reason to believe that we are able to see a turnout that is better than would normally be expected in a midterm election,” Myles said.
In Democratic stronghold Broward County, Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, is leading an intensive get-out-the-vote endeavor targeting 90,000 voters who cast ballots in 2012 but stayed home in 2010.
Smith’s team fans out through black neighborhoods from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. daily, knocking on doors and leaving voting information on front porches. On Election Day, Smith will dispatch 300 volunteers — including high-school varsity football players — in the hope of turning out up to 30,000 voters who didn’t show up four years ago.
Smith is also organizing one of the many “Souls to the Polls” events across the state that steer churchgoers to early voting locales after Sunday church services. Like Smith’s Nov. 2 event, the rallies will feature musical performances, appearances by civil-rights leaders and black pastors, and food.
Former President Bill Clinton will headline a “Souls to the Polls” event Sunday in Tampa for Crist.
Florida New Majority, financed largely by the Service Employees International Union and limited by the IRS code to educating voters about the candidates, is focusing on infrequent minority voters in Miami-Dade and Duval counties.
Gihan Perera, the group’s executive director, said his workers will knock on at least 60,000 doors in black neighborhoods in the Jacksonville area and another 25,000 in and around Miami. They’re asking voters to promise to vote by signing pledge cards. Organizers are following up with texts and emails that include information about voting times and locations.
Key among the points Perera is hitting on is a 2012 Florida voting law that restricted early voting and made it harder for voters who move from one county to another to cast ballots. The law was blamed for long lines experienced by voters in various parts of the state, especially in lower-income communities, and prompted the Legislature to change the law in 2013.
Crist contrasts the 2012 election law with his own history as governor when he issued an executive order in 2008 that extended hours for early voting in response to long lines.
“Voting is a quintessential issue for black voters,” Myles said. “It’s interesting that an effort to suppress the vote is actually having an opposite effect.”
Black community leaders like Perera are using messaging about elections in other states to convince African-Americans they can tip the scales in Florida. That includes Mississippi, where black Democratic voters helped incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran defeat tea party-backed opponent Chris McDaniel, and Virginia, where Gov. Terry McAuliffe owes a major portion of his victory to capturing 90 percent of the black vote. As part of that strategy, the group launched a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #blackvotesmatter. The group is hosting a tele-town hall meeting on Tuesday. Perera is forecasting that thousands of voters will participate.
“The black vote will be the difference maker in this election,” Perera, whose group honed its skills during the 2012 presidential election, said. “It is a huge and right recognition that is clear among black leaders and black organizers in the community. It’s what I’m hearing amongst leadership-level folks and barber shops.”
Scott’s campaign has hammered Crist in television ads for the Democrat’s support of Obama’s landmark health care law. But while linking Crist to Obama may work as a wedge for Scott’s base GOP voters, it may backfire among the voters on whom Crist is relying. Those voters, for the most part, remain devoted to the president.
Obama has not stumped for Crist in Florida, but the more-popular White House resident, First Lady Michelle Obama, campaigned with Crist in Orlando last week and is expected to return before Nov. 4.
Crist plays up his enthusiasm for Obama’s health care law, including an expansion of Medicaid for which Scott at one point gave support but later failed to push the Legislature to approve.
“I can’t believe it. I really can’t believe it. How do you sleep at night when you know that that opportunity is there before you if you’re just willing to reach across the aisle? But I think that his disdain for the president is such that he just can’t let himself do it,” Crist said of Scott at the Florida conference of the NAACP annual meeting in Panama City earlier this month.
Black leaders are using issues important to African-American voters, like education, health care, criminal justice and voting rights, to inject an enthusiasm into the November match-up.
Black voters “have an agenda that is on this ballot,” former state Sen. Tony Hill, a Crist supporter who now works for Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown, said.
“Now it’s time to put all that frustration and feelings at the ballot box. We feel that now the negative ads and all of that trying to confuse us,” Hill said. “We know what the real issues are. The real issues are that for four years, we had to take a drug test. For four years, we had to fight this battle of five years for me to get my rights back. Everything that we worked for and some people died for was just done with the stroke of a pen. Now it’s our time to speak. I think that strategically around this state, we have people that can get us out to vote. And when we get out to vote, we’re going to do the right thing.”