Even a race between two well-mannered, well-manicured candidates — each about 20 highly paid consultants deep (probably) — is not immune to insults, grandstanding and constant interruption, if Monday's debate between the two candidates for Florida's 13th Congressional District was any indication.
As a bonus, per every public event we've witnessed over the past year, from a performance by our favorite comic, David Cross, at the Straz to both the Republican and Democratic conventions, there was plenty of noisy audience participation.
The first and probably only debate between Republican incumbent David Jolly and his challenger, former Governor Charlie Crist, which took place at the Palladium near downtown St. Pete, was packed with barbs, jeers, plenty of pots calling kettles black and even a little substance here and there.
The attacks came largely from Jolly, who is facing a tough reelection bid for a newly drawn seat.
“Mr. Crist got in this race because the lines changed. I got in this race despite the fact that the lines changed,” Jolly said, though Crist quickly pointed out that Jolly had initially taken himself out of the running because he deemed the seat unwinnable, instead seeking to replace U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, then a presidential candidate.
The two were of course asked questions on a range of issues — assault weapons, Obamacare, medical marijuana, and on many issues they differed only slightly (more on that in a bit).
Largely under scrutiny were both of their political ambitions.
Crist got into the race after the 13's lines were redrawn (Fair Districts lawsuit, blah blah blah) to favor Democrats. He used to be a Republican, which makes him an easy target.
“Charlie, just because you've been a member of both parties doesn't make you bipartisan,” Jolly said toward the beginning of the event.
Political parties change over time, Crist replied.
“It's not a sin," he said. "If the values of the party at the time do not comport with the values you were raised by your family, I think you have a duty to yourself and to your god to do what you think is right and represent the principals and values that you share... and that's why I'm a Democrat today and I'm proud of it.”
Crist left the Republican Party during a heated U.S. Senate primary against Rubio. He then became a Democrat before a second run for governor.
The two had a handful of things in common — both support some form of Medicaid expansion in the state (even if Jolly has voted to repeal Obamacare, the program that makes that possible, dozens of times, while Crist wholeheartedly endorses it), both support a Cuban consulate in the district and both, obviously, would like to see the Tampa Bay Rays stay in Pinellas County.
Jolly was quick to point out where he sides with Democrats — LGBT issues, climate change.
But one of the first issues over which the two sparred was abortion.
Crist said he was personally pro-life, but believes in the right to choose.
Jolly, who has referred to himself as a born-again Christian, said he could not see how that was possible. Groan.
One of the most heated moments of the debate occurred, as one might expect, when the two were given an opportunity to ask one another a question.
Crist sought the high road over a chance to spar.
“It's usually posed as an opportunity for people to take shots at each other. I don't believe in that. So I'm not going to do that,” he said. “If I did have a question for you, David, it would be that I would hope you would join me in doing this and bringing about more civil discourse of issues […].”
The crowd laughed when Jolly said he in fact did want to ask his opponent something, but then things got a little heavy for a moment.
“When you were in the Florida Senate you coined yourself 'Chain Gang Charlie.' Built a political career,” he said. “When you were in the State Senate you traveled to Alabama with Terry Singleton, the very first African-American corrections secretary for the State of Florida, to view a chain gang... You stood on the side of the road over three African-American prisoners on their knees. Terry Singleton said it made him sick to his stomach.... My question for you was, did you ever give it a second thought? Did you ever hesitate? Or did you just see political opportunity back home to be a Republican tough on crime?”
Crist said as a State Senator he had a tough-on-crime stance because, at the time, violent crime in Florida was rampant.
“In the mid-1990s in our state we were number one for violent crime in America," he said. “And for you to suggest that it had anything to do with race is appalling and it's beneath you and I'm embarrassed for you that you would say that about a fellow Floridian.”
He added that the first thing he did after becoming governor was restore voting rights to felons who had completed their sentences. Because it is possible to care about the victims of crimes as well as the rights of those who have done their time.
Of course, the currently most talked about issue in these parts, the dumping of over 100 million gallons of sewage into the bay, came up — during a question about tourism.
Crist went after Jolly for not using his office to seek federal help for cleanup efforts.
“What I don't understand is why our member of Congress... isn't advocating day after day after day for federal emergency help to get this cleaned up," Crist said. "Our country has done this for Flint. Why can't we do it for Pinellas County?”
Jolly's answer? St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman hasn't asked.
"It's because the mayor who has endorsed you who oversaw this catastrophe has not asked. That's why," he said.
That answer set Crist up for a moment of political theatrics that'll probably give him a boost.
"If you have to be asked for help when the people of your district are suffering, something's wrong," he said.
Jolly retorted that the (Republican-led) cities of Treasure Island and Clearwater have sought help from Jolly's office, and he responded.
“Do you need an invitation to serve?” Crist said.
Editor's Note: Party politics could possibly be at play here. It could be neither Kriseman or Jolly wants to make the other guy look good by A) asking for help and getting a response or B) helping out a Democratic mayor a year out from said mayor's reelection bid, probably against one of said Congressman's friends. Maybe.
The biggest eye-roll moment of the night came during a lightning round, during which one of the moderators asked each the title of the last book they read. Crist said the last book he read was the Bible, a book he reads every day. It's probably the most generic and disappointing answer a politician could give, but it'll probably play well in some demographics. Who needs the Millennial vote anyway?
Jolly said his most recent read was a book about fisheries, which is probably a lil' more relevant.