Politics & Policy

Charlie and the Trial Lawyers

Governor Crist plots a comeback from Morgan & Morgan.

Charlie Crist had to take the bar three times, and he hadn’t practiced law for at least 18 years when he finished his term as governor in 2011. But that didn’t keep one of Florida’s most powerful law firms, Morgan & Morgan, from taking him on board as soon as he finished serving his time in Tallahassee. Now, as Crist prepares for his DNC speech tonight and rumors swirl about the possibility of his trying to win back his spot in the governor’s mansion, the personal-injury firm’s decision to hire him makes a little more sense.

It might seem embarrassing for a former governor to end up at a personal-injury firm that does TV and billboard advertising — and it is. But Crist has never let a sense of propriety or shame get in the way of his ambitions. His gig at Morgan & Morgan could make for the perfect springboard for a return to politics.

Since he had trouble keeping his power in the state as a Republican and, later, an independent, process of elimination seems to have taken him to the welcoming arms of President Obama and the DNC. “Charlie Crist no more believes all of the liberal things he’s saying today than he believed the conservative things he was saying in his gubernatorial and senate primaries,” said Todd Harris, a veteran Florida GOP strategist. “The only thing he believes in is himself.”

Another Florida political insider concurred, saying Crist’s leftward pivot looks like bald-faced opportunism. “But who knows what’s in his head.”

In 2010, after it became clear he couldn’t beat Marco Rubio in the Republican Senate primary, Crist, (who was then serving as Governor) famously left the GOP in order to continue his campaign . Many political observers hold that Crist could have easily won another term as governor and didn’t need to take such a risk to maintain power in the state. But that’s just not Charlie Crist; the political chameleon has never run for reelection for a statewide office, always looking for the next thing instead. He put out a charming television spot where he rearranged the letters in the words “Democrats” and “Republicans” to spell “Americans.” Truly a man for all seasons.

Floridians weren’t having it, though, and it looked as if he was disappearing from politics for good when, after being handily defeated by Rubio, he finished his governorship and went to work for Morgan & Morgan.

Many Florida political insiders even question whether Crist actually practices law for Morgan & Morgan. One called him a “celebrity spokesperson” for the firm, which was the top contributor to his 2010 Senate bid. John Morgan, the firm’s founder, is a prominent Florida Democratic fundraiser with a huge network throughout the state. His biennial picnics at the Central Florida Fairgrounds (the last of which featured country star Kenny Rogers) attract thousands of people, including numerous prominent politicians, attorneys, and former clients of the firm. In other words, they’re the perfect networking events for anyone seeking political resurrection.

And that seems to be Crist’s endgame. Morgan told a Florida paper that, if Crist ran in 2014, Morgan “would raise him millions of dollars.” The attorney is probably good for that — the two are good friends, and Morgan’s firm is the top contributor to the campaign committees of Senator Bill Nelson (D., Fla.) and Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D., Fla.). It’s also among the top 20 contributors for other prominent Senate Democrats, including Bob Casey, Maria Cantwell, and Harry Reid. According to its marketing department, it’s the largest personal-injury firm in the country, and Morgan has significant sway among the country’s trial lawyers. And Governor Charlie Crist would definitely be a lot better for them than Rick Scott, who’s pushed for tort reform throughout his tenure.

So it’s no surprise that the firm’s abundant advertising dollars are helping Crist keep up his name recognition and likability. The firm has plastered dozens of billboards of Crist’s face throughout Florida, concentrated in the center of the state, which is an electorally essential region. Many feature public-safety messages, such as “Don’t drink and drive,” and the firm’s slogan, “FOR THE PEOPLE.” One, emblazoned with “IT’S ABOUT THE PEOPLE,” is just blocks from the governor’s mansion. (N.B.: Crist’s slogan when he lived there was “The People’s Governor.” Coincidence?)

“If the trial-lawyer firm is trying to position Charlie Crist to take a run as the Democratic nominee for our next governor, this is exactly what you would do to get his name out there,” said Mark Wilson, the president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

He’s been in TV commercials for the firm, too, including one that looked a bit more like a campaign ad than anything else. In it, he bemoaned the miserable lot of teachers, saying they’re “overworked, underpaid, and, for some reason, never fully appreciated,” despite the fact that they’ve helped our country produce the world’s best medical professionals, scholars, and scientists. He concluded with, “To all our teachers, you have our deepest gratitude. Thank a teacher today. Morgan & Morgan. For our teachers.” This comes from a governor who, 60 days after stumping for legislation that would tie teachers’ pay to their students’ academic success, vetoed it under pressure from unions. That kind of schizoid policymaking agenda is just one example of why Democrats might not line up to get on the Charlie Crist bandwagon.

“Though the Democrats would very much like to win the governorship in 2014,” Wilson said, “I think that most Democrats realize that what we really want from our governor is somebody who says what they’re going to do and then does what they said.”

Sounds like a reasonable expectation. But if that’s too much to ask, you can settle for the guy who really, really wants you to drive safely.

“It’s a smart strategy for a law firm to use a celebrity trial lawyer like Charlie Crist to generate more business,” said Wilson. “I think what makes it a genius play on the trial lawyers’ part is that it’s also helping to remind people that Charlie Crist is out there and he cares, he doesn’t want you to text and drive.”

Depending on how you read judicial precedent, those billboards might be able to stay up during a gubernatorial race without counting as campaign contributions, since they will have already been up for a few years.

Jack Scarola, a prominent Palm Beach attorney, said that while shilling for trial lawyers might not necessarily be great for one’s reputation, the windfall might balance that out. “While there may be some downside in terms of the negative association with plaintiffs’ lawyers, there is also an offsetting upside in terms of the availability of potential financial resources,” he said.

And Crist has already benefited plenty from said financial resources.

“That’s the one consistency,” said Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the Republican party of Palm Beach County. “If there’s one thing Charlie believes in, it’s getting money from trial lawyers. And that will not change, going forward.”

His second-largest 2010 donor (after Morgan & Morgan) was Rothstein, Rosenfeldt & Adler, a now-defunct personal-injury firm that put more than $97,000 into his campaign. One of its partners, Scott Rothstein, had a cozy relationship with the former governor — for his 52nd birthday, he gave him a double-layer chocolate cake, along with $1,000 per candle for the state GOP. Rothstein helped him blow them out. Unfortunately for Crist, Rothstein wouldn’t have made for a good future employer — he’s currently serving a lengthy prison sentence for his role in a $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme.

If Crist tries a comeback, what does he have to lose? In terms of sheer shameless opportunism, it’s hard to see how he can go any lower. 

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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