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In Florida, oil spill seeps into statehouse

Gov. Charlie Crist pushes a constitutional amendment banning offshore drilling, an effort defeated by Republicans. It's not the only political battle ignited by the spill.

July 21, 2010|By James Oliphant

Reporting from Tallahassee, Fla. — Tribune Washington Bureau

It took Republicans in the state House of Representatives here less than an hour Tuesday to deep-six an effort by Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican turned independent, to push a constitutional amendment banning offshore drilling.

The outcome was not a surprise, but it was dramatic evidence that the massive oil spill is washing over gulf state politics as well as beaches.

Crist, a popular governor who is running for the U.S. Senate as an independent after being flanked by conservatives in his own party, is hoping that anger over the oil spill will propel him to office.

And the actions of the state GOP, while stopping Crist in the Legislature, appear likely to foment that anger further.

Fallout from the Deepwater Horizon rig disaster is seeping through congressional races nationwide. While the spill has emerged as a central issue in the Senate race here, it's also pitted Gulf Coast Democrats on Capitol Hill against the Obama administration, made conservative folk heroes out of a pair of Republican governors, and handed Democrats something every campaign season needs: a black-hat villain in BP.

Battles over oil drilling have taken place in states as distant from the gulf as Wisconsin, where Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, locked in a tight race, has accused his opponent, Ron Johnson, of supporting drilling in the Great Lakes.

For Crist, who infuriated Republicans nationwide when he abandoned his party in April to run as an independent, the spill has reinvigorated a once-flailing campaign. The governor has spent much of his time in the Florida Panhandle, walking the beaches, talking to nervous business owners and soaking up media coverage.

He has cast himself as an ally of environmentalists and distanced himself from the pro-drilling stance of his GOP rival, Marco Rubio, whose powerful challenge for the GOP Senate nomination propelled Crist into running as an independent.

Polls now have Crist with a lead in the three-way race, drawing support away from potential Democratic nominees Jeff Greene and Kendrick Meek.

Crist called a special session of the Legislature this week to consider a ballot measure that would amend the constitution to ban offshore drilling in state waters, a practice that is already prohibited under Florida law.

Republicans, who control the Legislature, groused that they were being used as a political prop. "This is about making something that's illegal more illegal," said state Sen. Mike Haridopolos, the incoming Senate president, in an interview.

Florida has long resisted basing its economy on oil, preferring to rely on tourism.

Just a year ago, however, the Florida House voted to overturn the drilling ban, which drilling opponents cite as a reason for a constitutional amendment.

As fierce as the resistance is to offshore drilling in Florida, feelings run the other way in Louisiana and other gulf states, where the oil industry employs hundreds of thousands. There, the Obama administration's insistence on instituting a six-month ban on deep-water drilling in the gulf has placed Democrats in the awkward position of criticizing the president.

Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana was particularly disappointed that the administration put in place a second ban after a first one was struck down by a federal judge. The moratorium "could cost more jobs than the spill itself," she said last week.

Democratic candidates for Congress have been even harsher.

"This made-for-TV moratorium won't just kill jobs in the oil industry, it will bankrupt retail stores, restaurants, car and boat dealerships, grocery stores," said Ravi Sangisetty, who is running for an open House seat in Louisiana.

Meanwhile, the GOP, led in Louisiana by Gov. Bobby Jindal and in Mississippi by Gov. Haley Barbour, has found traction with another strategy: attacking the administration's response to the spill as inadequate and overly bureaucratic.

The Democratic Party, in contrast, has kept its fire trained on oil giant BP.

The party started a website called BP Republicans, which takes aim at "tea party"-backed Senate candidates Sharron Angle of Nevada, who called a $20-billion aid fund for spill victims a "slush fund," and Rand Paul of Kentucky, who labeled criticism of BP "un-American."

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