Gov. Charlie Crist met Wednesday with the legislative black caucus, and the Republican governor got a hero’s welcome from the all-Democratic group, most of whose members endorsed his opponent, Jim Davis.

“He’s the first black governor of the state of Florida,” exulted Rep. Terry Fields of Jacksonville as he wrapped an arm around Crist’s shoulder. – Saint Petersburg Times, February 17, 2007

Back then, the newly inaugurated governor, now running for the U.S. Senate as an independent, called himself a “Jeb Bush Republican.” But unlike Bush, whose abrasiveness often caused friction with black leaders, Crist offered a friendly face and an open door.

“The main difference is we’ve known Charlie Crist a long time,” said Adora Obi Nwezi, president of the statewide NAACP. “He’s a lifetime member of the NAACP, and we knew him going back to when he was education secretary.”

And while Obi-Nwezi said the organization also talked to Bush, “when you know somebody, it makes a difference.”

In November 1999, Bush signed his One Florida initiative, abolishing racial preferences in education and state contracting by executive order, without consulting the state’s black legislative caucus.

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Bush hoped to avoid a divisive ballot initiative from anti-affirmative action activist Ward Connerly, who had pursued successful referendums in Washington and California, and had his eye on Florida’s November 2000 election. One Florida blunted Connerly, but it also touched off massive student demonstrations, an outcry from the NAACP, and a sit-in inside the governor’s office by then-State Representative Tony Hill and a young State Senator from Miami named Kendrick Meek.

Now, Crist and Meek are locked in a three-way battle for the Senate against Republican Marco Rubio.

Meek, flush from a decisive 57 percent to 31 percent rout of billionaire Jeff Greene in Tuesday’s primary (he was outspent 7 to 1), is off on a statewide campaign tour. But he will have to battle Crist all the way to November for Democratic voters, including African-Americans, whose importance is magnified in off-year elections. Having left the Republican Party in April, Crist is eyeing Meek’s base as his own.

Running against history

Peeling black voters away from Meek won’t be easy.

The Miami congressman’s mother, former Congresswoman Carrie Meek, is an icon to black Floridians. Meek would be the first black Senator from the state, and only the seventh in U.S. history (including four since Reconstruction.) And he’s running just two years after the country elected its first black president.

Crist has run against history before. In 2006, his Democratic opponent, Jim Davis, chose an African-American running-mate with ties to President Bill Clinton. Davis and former State Sen. Daryl Jones had the support of their party’s rising star; a young Illinois Senator named Barack Obama, who came to Miami to campaign for them.

But Davis had two problems, named Pitts and Lee.

Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for the 1963 murders of two white men. Exonerated in 1975 after a Miami Herald report revealed confessions had been beaten out of them and that a white convicted murderer had confessed to the crimes, the Florida legislature awarded the men a settlement in 1998.

Crist, then a State Senator nicknamed “chain gang Charlie” for his tough stance on crime – co-sponsored a bill to compensate the men. Davis, his legislative colleague from Tampa, voted against it. And though Davis apologized during the campaign, with Pitts and Lee at his side, the damage was done. On Election Day, black turnout was low, and Crist took 22 percent of it.

Once in office, Crist signed an executive order easing the state’s draconian felon voting law. He infuriated his party by ordering polls to stay open as long lines snaked around early voting sites during the 2008 election, an act many Republicans privately grumbled helped Barack Obama win Florida and the presidency.

And then there was the hug. In February 2009, Crist was among just a handful of Republican governors to embrace the economic stimulus package, and the only one to literally embrace the Democratic president. Photos of “the hug” helped push the governor out of the GOP. But Crist, now running with strong Democratic support (and some Meek backers grouse, with the tacit support of the Obama White House,) is taking every opportunity to publicly side with the president.

Crist is popular with Democrats. A Public Policy Poll conducted August 21-22 put his approval rating with black Floridians at 63 percent — higher than his 57 percent approval rating overall. Polls just before the primary showed Meek getting 70 percent of the black vote versus Greene; and Crist getting 19 percent of black support in the general election.

But can he hold it?

“No chance,” said Marvin Dunn, author of Black Miami in the 20th Century.

“He may get 10 percent of the black vote if he’s lucky, but let’s face it, he’s not black,” Dunn said. “People tend to vote race and ethnicity. This race will be no different.”

Dunn said the more important question might be what percentage of white voters will support Meek, whose low poll numbers have frightened some Democrats into Crist’s corner.

Roderick Vereen, an African-American attorney running as an independent to fill the seat Meek is vacating in the 17th District in Miami, said voters he talks to are increasingly looking past race and political affiliation.

“Black people are looking at issues,” Vereen said. “They want to know about poverty, crime, unemployment, schools…”

Indeed, since the 2008 election, 75 percent of newly registered black voters signed on as Democrats, but 22 percent registered “no party affiliation” (Just 3 percent registered as Republicans.)

A Public Policy Poll taken on the day of the primary shows Meek splitting Democratic support 39 percent—38 percent with Crist, but remaining in third place at 17 percent, as a divided Democratic electorate pushes Rubio into the lead.

In the end, the question for black voters may be less about race or history, and more about who can win.