TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Charlie Crist was sworn in as Florida's 44th governor Tuesday and promised to avoid partisan politics while working to improve education, lower property taxes and solve the state's insurance crisis.
Crist replaced fellow Republican Jeb Bush, whose popularity remained steady through his eight years in office as part of an American political dynasty. In a speech overflowing with optimism, Crist said the way to make the state better is through unity.
"Our mission has never been more clear: Solve problems, don't politicize them," he said in the prepared version of his inaugural address. "Put the common good above partisan politics. We will work together to do what is right. And reject labels — red, blue; liberal, conservative; Democrat, Republican. There is only one label that really matters: Floridian."
He then outlined some lofty goals for the next four years.
"This will be Florida's greatest century. Second best is no longer acceptable. This will be the time when we take our rightful place not near the top, but at the top. My friends, with your help, Florida will stand before the world as a shining symbol of all that can be achieved," Crist said.
Crist was sworn on the steps Florida's Old Capitol by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred Lewis. Also taking their oaths of office were Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, Attorney General Bill McCollum, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson.
Crist's parents stood next to him as he took the oath and his three sisters were at the event. U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez served as master of ceremonies.
Crist, 50, has served as attorney general the last four years. He has also been education commissioner and a state senator. He defeated Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Davis in November to earn the seat.
Bush returned to Tallahassee from his holiday vacation for the ceremony. He will largely be remembered for leading the state through repeated hurricanes and overhauling the state's education system. Bush couldn't seek re-election because of term limits.
Crist paid tribute to Bush in the address, calling him the nation's greatest governor.
"Jeb Bush showed us how government can pursue audacious goals with vision and integrity," he said. "After eight years, our taxes are lower, one million more people are earning paychecks in new jobs, and thousands more of our students are receiving a year's worth of knowledge in a year's worth of time."
The inaugural ceremonies included a prayer breakfast at Florida A&M University, a parade through downtown and a festival at the governor's mansion. But Crist canceled the traditional inaugural ball, saying that he didn't feel right about a fancy party when so many people are struggling to pay soaring homeowners insurance premiums and property taxes.
"We were going to have a ball tonight, but we're not. I hope you don't mind. But we will celebrate with our service," Crist said at the prayer breakfast.
Crist will face huge tests almost immediately. The Legislature begins a special session Jan. 16 to try to find a way to make insurance more affordable and more available. Homeowners around the state have seen triple-digit rate increases and more people are having to rely on a state-created insurer of last resort for coverage.
"Skyrocketing property insurance and property tax rates are a real threat to our citizens. The impact is crippling," Crist said. "Some of our families are no longer able to afford their homes, spending down their retirement to keep a roof over their head, leveraging their children's future to keep food on the table. This cannot stand."
He also promised to give teachers' raises and recruit top educators to Florida.
"We have no higher priority, no higher calling, than to make sure our children are prepared, not only to participate in but to lead in the highly competitive global economy," Crist said. "We need to make sure they're ready. It is our highest calling, and our most important responsibility. We need to continue on the path of making Florida's education the gold standard."
Crist also promised to bring new business to Florida and said he would travel to Israel after the annual legislative session in the first of a series of trade missions.
"We are poised to be an economic engine like no other. And as governor, I'll make sure we fulfill that potential," Crist said. "I'll work to ensure Florida is open for business, that our citizens do not just have jobs, but good jobs."