Chris Hand: With his LG pick, Charlie Crist should choose a running mate, governing partner

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When presidential nominees select their vice-presidential running mates, that choice is routinely described as the most important decision they will make as a candidate. That description is accurate, as history shows that a presidential hopeful may well be choosing his or her successor.

Of the 49 people who have served as Vice President, 15 later became President — with nine immediately elevated to the presidency due to the death or resignation of their predecessor.

In the nearly 55 years since Florida restored the position of lieutenant governor (LG) after almost a century without one, few political observers have spoken of the LG selection process with the same gravity as a Vice-Presidential choice. While there have been exceptions — such as when Lawton Chiles selected former U.S. Rep. Buddy MacKay as his running mate in 1990 or Jeb Bush chose Florida Education Secretary Frank Brogan in 1998 — most LG announcements tend to produce a few days of coverage before the news and the nominee fade into the political background. In all but a few cases, most elected lieutenant governors have served out their terms without extensive public awareness of their work in state government.

That obscurity is a direct result of how the LG position is defined — or more precisely, not defined. The Florida Constitution gives the lieutenant governor no formal responsibilities. In exactly 40 words, Article IV, Section 2 states “[t]here shall be a lieutenant governor, who shall perform such duties pertaining to the office of Governor as shall be assigned by the governor, except when otherwise provided by law, and such other duties as may be prescribed by law.” Some Governors, such as Bob Graham, Chiles, and Bush, have made their Lieutenant Governors governing partners and assigned significant duties.

But other chief executives have underutilized the position and lost the additional leadership capacity that a fully engaged and empowered LG could provide.

Now that he has clinched the Democratic nomination and is required by law to name a running mate no later than Thursday, Sept. 1, Charlie Crist has an opportunity to follow the Graham/Chiles/Bush model. He can choose a partner who can both expand his campaign’s presence and, if elected, share the substantial task of governing the nation’s third-largest state.

A common claim in Florida politics is that Democrats do not have an adequate bench. But that statement is not accurate with regard to Crist’s LG options. Crist has a wealth of possibilities — especially if he chooses a running mate from the 51% of Floridians who are female.

The most obvious candidates include leaders who were active Crist supporters in the primary, such as State Representative (and incoming House Democratic leader) Fentrice Driskell of Tampa, State Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando, and Orange County Property Appraiser (and former State Rep.) Amy Mercado. Each of those partners would provide the political acumen and governing experience Crist needs in a running mate.

But there is a catch: House and Senate members not already termed out of office would have to forego their re-election bids (in the cases of Driskell, Eskamani, or any other legislators on the ballot in 2022) or resign from their posts. Local officeholders with time left in their terms (such as Mercado) would also have to resign to run.

Given the difficulties involved in unseating an incumbent Governor with more than $130 million raised for the General Election, some of Crist’s more visible possibilities may prefer to remain in their current roles.

Even if those contenders decide not to join the ticket, Crist has numerous other options from which to choose. While the selection of a running mate is a deeply personal decision — one which Crist has made twice before — below (in alphabetical order) are six possible LG nominees he may want to consider. None of the below leaders are currently running for another office. None are serving in elective offices for which selection would require resignation. But all are experienced public officials who could be effective in the campaign and in state government.

Gwen Graham very nearly became Governor, as Joe Henderson of Florida Politics noted in a recent column about the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Following Joe Biden’s election as President, he appointed Graham as the Assistant U.S. Education Secretary for Legislation and Congressional Affairs — an appointment that drew on her past service as a U.S. Representative serving North Florida and at Leon County Schools.

Pegeen Hanrahan served as Mayor of Gainesville from 2004 to 2010 following two terms on the Gainesville City Commission. A professional engineer by occupation, Hanrahan has especially distinguished herself as an environmental leader. She led the 2014 statewide campaign to dedicate funding for land acquisition and restoration through the Water and Land Conservation Amendment, which received 75% of the vote. Hanrahan has continued her work to protect natural treasures with the Trust for Public Land.

Barbara Jenkins will complete 30 years of teaching and administrative service to Orange County Public Schools (OCPS), including a decade as superintendent, in December 2022. Her leadership at OCPS, the ninth largest public school system in the nation and fourth largest in Florida, was recognized through her selection as the 2017 Florida Superintendent of the Year. Though Jenkins is a registered Democrat, a Republican Governor previously considered but did not select her for Lieutenant Governor.

Mia Jones was a member of the Florida House of Representatives from 2008 to 2016, where she built bipartisan working relationships on a variety of issues and demonstrated particular expertise in health care. She also knows local government through past experience as the first City of Jacksonville Health Commissioner and as an elected member of the Jacksonville City Council. Jones now leads Agape Family Health, a nonprofit which provides access to affordable health care for Jacksonville residents.

Melissa McKinlay has been a Palm Beach County commissioner since 2014, including two years as Mayor. During that time, she has become one of the leading advocates of local government, ultimately serving as president of the Florida Association of Counties. As a County Commissioner, McKinlay has focused on issues of economic development, infrastructure, housing affordability, and human trafficking. She considered but decided against a 2022 run for Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Miami became the first Ecuadorian American and South American-born member of the United States Congress when she was elected in 2018. Her congressional service followed a career in nonprofit and higher education leadership. After leaving Congress in 2021, Mucarsel-Powell — whose father was the victim of gun violence in Ecuador — joined Giffords, the national organization led by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords which advocates for gun safety legislation.

The above list is not comprehensive, and Crist has other good options. But no matter who he chooses, Crist should make his running mate a full partner both on the campaign trail and, if elected, in state government.

Though a running mate offers a gubernatorial campaign the opportunity to expand its reach in a state with 67 counties, 66,000 square miles, and 22 million people, not every past candidate has fully utilized the added bandwidth an LG nominee can provide.

If Crist has any hope of defeating DeSantis, he will need all the help he can get from the person whose name will appear with his on the November ballot.

However, the more crucial time horizon is not the next three months but the next four years. If Crist is elected in November, he will face a monumental governing challenge as the first Democratic Governor since Buddy MacKay left office in January 1999.

Though Crist is obviously familiar with state government, Tallahassee has changed since he departed in January 2011. If he wins Nov. 8, Crist will be responsible for advancing a policy agenda; appointing staff to manage state agencies; preparing a more than $100 billion proposed budget; making appointments to numerous boards, commissions, and judgeships; working with a Florida Legislature that will almost certainly be controlled by the other party, and connecting the Governor’s Office with the citizens it represents both directly and through the media.

He will need a Lieutenant Governor who can share the leadership load.

Even more importantly, every gubernatorial candidate owes Florida taxpayers a fully involved Lieutenant Governor. Those taxpayers make an annual salary investment of nearly $125,000 in the position. They deserve a return on their investment through a Lieutenant Governor who is actively involved in the work of state government.

Charlie Crist would be wise to keep that in mind as he makes a final decision on his running mate and potential governing partner.

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Chris Hand is a government law attorney who has been part of various Florida campaigns. He served as chief of staff at the consolidated City of Jacksonville from 2011-2015 and as campaign Press Secretary and Senate Press Secretary for U.S. Sen. Graham. With Graham, he co-authored “America, the Owner’s Manual: You Can Fight City Hall — and Win.” Hand also wrote the 50th-anniversary update to the chronicle of Jacksonville consolidation: “A Quiet Revolution.”

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