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The week that was in Florida politics: Robinson leaves, but Crist and Greer don’t go away

By on August 4, 2012

When Gerard Robinson was chosen in June 2011 to become Florida education commissioner, Gov. Rick Scott hailed the newcomer’s leadership as “exactly what Florida needs to reach the next level of education reforms that will benefit both our students and the businesses of our state.”

But with Robinson’s resignation this week, someone else will have to help lead Florida to that next level.

In announcing his resignation, Robinson said he wanted to spend more time with his family in Virginia. But the departure also came after the department found itself embroiled recently in back-to-back controversies about its handling of Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores and school grades.

Robinson’s tenure was short enough that he might leave little impression in Tallahassee political circles. But the same can’t be said for two other once-close figures — former Gov. Charlie Crist and former state Republican Chairman Jim Greer — who drew headlines this week.

Crist looks like he might get back into campaign mode, possibly as a Democrat. Greer, meanwhile, continues a legal battle with the state Republican Party about a severance agreement from his time as chairman.

A round-up via Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

MR. ROBINSON, WE HARDLY KNEW YE

Scott and Kathleen Shanahan, chairwoman of the state Board of Education, praised Robinson after he announced his resignation.

“He has worked with the board as we have raised standards for our students and our schools,” Shanahan said in a statement released by the Department of Education. “He is a leader who embodies and understands the importance of education reform. We wish him the best as he makes the decision that is best for his own young children.”

Under Robinson, however, the department gave fuel to critics of Florida’s heavy emphasis on the FCAT and school grades.

The Board of Education held an emergency meeting in May to lower passing scores on FCAT writing tests, after the department saw plummeting percentages of students meeting new, tougher standards. In July, the department had to revise grades for 213 elementary and middle schools and nine school districts because of problems in the grading process.

Robinson’s resignation spurred further calls from Democrats to place less emphasis on standardized testing.

“The FCAT has failed students, teachers and our state,” said Plantation Rep. Perry Thurston, who is expected to become the House Democratic leader after this fall’s elections. “A new state education commissioner can help Florida install a better and broader education accountability system for every school receiving taxpayer dollars that takes into account all the things students and teachers accomplish throughout the year.”

With many Republicans invested politically in the FCAT, it remains to be seen whether the state will make changes to the accountability system. The Board of Education chose Public Schools Chancellor Pam Stewart to serve as interim commissioner while it searches for Robinson’s replacement.

GREER, CRIST SEND MESSAGES TO THE GOP
Greer and Crist once were close allies atop the Florida GOP. Now, they are vilified by the party.

But both — in far different ways — keep coming back to give Republicans reasons to curse them.

Greer, who faces criminal money-laundering and fraud charges because of an alleged fund-raising scheme while he was chairman, is locked in a messy civil lawsuit with the party about a severance agreement. The case took a bizarre turn this week when Greer’s attorney released a document to reporters that indicated the party has been involved in settlement talks.

“We’ve been talking about a settlement this whole time,” Greer attorney Damon Chase said.

But Stephen Dobson, a lawyer for the party, denied that talks are ongoing. While Dobson said discussions had been held in the past, he said the GOP does not plan to pay Greer to make the case vanish.

“While I don’t want to get into specifics, I will tell you that the Republican Party has never made an offer to pay Jim Greer any money to settle his lawsuit — not one dollar, not one red cent,” Dobson said.

Crist, meanwhile, continued to add to speculation that he will become a Democrat and run for governor in 2014. He appeared this week at an Orlando fund-raiser for Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson — a fund-raiser that also included former President Bill Clinton.

Crist, who left the GOP in 2010 to run unsuccessfully as an independent for the U.S. Senate, is backing Nelson over Republican U.S. Rep. Connie Mack.

“Senator Nelson has been a friend, he and Grace both,” Crist told the Associated Press, referring to Nelson’s wife. “It’s no knock on Connie.”

AP also reported that Mack campaign spokesman David James had a three-word response to the news.

“Is anyone surprised?” James said.

FINALLY, IT’S TIME TO VOTE

Bombarded by nasty mail pieces and television ads, Florida voters finally are getting their chance to have a say in this year’s elections.

Early voting starts this weekend in most of the state, though it was allowed to start Monday in Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe counties. Those five counties are treated differently than the rest of the state because of a history of discrimination.

State lawmakers last year changed an election law to reduce the number of days for early voting. But that change will not take effect for the five counties until the federal government signs off on it —- something that has not happened.

The start of early voting, however, has not eliminated the steady stream of lawsuits and assertions that the state is hindering people from voting. The latest example came this week when the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said more than 13,000 ex-felons might be eligible to vote but don’t know it.

The ACLU said the Florida Parole Commission has more than 17,000 Restoration of Civil Rights certificates that would notify former felons they can now register to vote. But the civil-liberties group said the certificates have not reached their intended recipients.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gerard Robinson resigns as Florida education commissioner.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I think it’s important to remember that only one person in this lawsuit has been arrested and charged with six felony charges, and that’s Jim Greer,” Stephen Dobson, an attorney for the state Republican Party, in dismissing the possibility of a settlement agreement that would involve the GOP paying former Chairman Greer.

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