TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) — It takes at least half an hour to walk down the block with Charlie Crist.
It’s not because the trim, 58-year-old is slow. But a stroll down the street with the former Republican governor, now trying to get his old job back as a Democrat, exhibits Crist’s strongest assets as a candidate.
He glad-hands with store owners, pedestrians and drivers stuck at a stop light. He poses for pictures. He asks about their jobs, their children and their hobbies. With a knitted brow, he listens to their stories. He writes down his cell phone number on the back of a business card if they say they need help. He makes them feel that they matter.
Friends and foes agree Crist is the quintessential politician.
“He is a consummate politician, particularly in the sense that most politicians are actors,” said J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich, a GOP consultant and lobbyist who has known Crist for 25 years and has supported him in every election — until now.
“His social sensors are extremely highly developed. In any situation, he immediately knows the role he has to play in order to please. Then he plays that role flawlessly. It’s intuitive. It’s almost instantaneous. And then, knowing his audience, he knows exactly how to act out his role,” Stipanovich said.
That Zelig-like quality has also made the Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat a subject of ridicule from critics, especially those at GOP headquarters.
At an event in his hometown of St. Petersburg where Crist formally announced he was entering the race for governor as a Democrat a year ago, Republican Party of Florida staffers handed out fans bearing Crist’s visage on both sides.
“Charlie Crist is a fan of whatever you want him to be,” the fans — blue on one side, red on the other — read. The gag was just a taste of a bitter battle waged over the past year by the Republican Party, whose leaders view Crist as an apostate. Incumbent Gov. Rick Scott, his backers and the party have reportedly planned to spend up to $100 million, as they paint Crist as an untrustworthy flip-flopper.
Less than three weeks before the Nov. 4 election, the soft-spoken Crist, who often refers to himself as “a live-and-let-live kind of guy,” seemed unfazed by the assaults.
In an interview, Crist said he is confident he can defeat Scott “by going to people in person and having the chance to reacquaint them with my heart and what I care about, which is them.”
As witnessed during a sidewalk promenade or at one of the many black churches he’s visited on Sundays for the past few months, Crist appears to genuinely enjoy something many politicians hate — campaigning.
“I think it’s nice that a person who’s in politics actually likes people. He enjoys retail campaigning. He enjoys politics. He enjoys governing, but I think he enjoys politics as much as anything. I think it’s refreshing when a guy actually likes to mix it up with his constituents,” said Brian Ballard, an influential Republican lobbyist and fundraiser who once raised money for Crist and is now doing the same for Scott.
Campaigning is an activity that Crist, who registered as a Democrat in 2012, has engaged in throughout his two decades in public office, even during the rare times when he wasn’t seemingly running for office.
“Charlie Crist — a lifelong Republican, Reagan conservative — can go to a black church and preach with the appropriate cadence and applaud with the appropriate rhythm and be as tactile and as huggy as anyone in the building. He can drive across town and go to a Republican women’s club and knock the ball out of the park just as easily. And would do both if he thought there were votes both places,” Stipanovich said.
A protégé of former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, Crist started his two decade-long political career as a Republican when he was elected in 1992 to the Florida Senate, where he served six years before an unsuccessful bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.
Crist then racked up a series of statewide victories, starting with a two-year stint as education commissioner, which became an appointed position two years after he won the seat. In 2002, Crist — a lawyer who flunked the Bar exam twice — was elected attorney general. Four years later, Crist sailed into the governor’s office, defeating Democrat Jim Davis by a seven-point margin.
He never sought a second term as attorney general or governor, another point of ridicule for Crist critics.
A bachelor during his first two years in the governor’s mansion, “The People’s Governor” — a moniker Crist still clings to — could frequently be seen shopping at a nearby Publix supermarket, earplug-wearing bodyguards in tow. Carrying a green plastic basket, often filled with just Crist’s trademark Red Bull and a pre-packaged salad, the governor would turn on the charm for the cashier, holding out his hand and introducing himself as “Charlie.”
The rail-thin Crist’s eating habits — he eats but one meal a day — is also a source of ribbing, and of frustration for campaign workers and staff, who often go hungry on the campaign trail, and even, at one time, for the chef at the Governor’s Mansion.
Crist’s culinary tastes are just one of the quirks drawing derision from detractors.
An avid fisherman who lives in a condominium overlooking the water in downtown St. Petersburg, Crist’s George Hamilton-esque, golden-brown appearance earned him the nickname “The Tan Man.” Crist — an admitted sun lover who once jetted around St. Petersburg in a yellow convertible Mustang — laughs off the handle. He says his Greek heritage is responsible for his bronze look.
The ubiquitous miniature fan inevitably found at Crist’s feet beneath the podium is another source of teasing. At a recent event in Panama City, Crist was cooled by not one but three fans as he delivered remarks to the NAACP’s Florida conference.
Tan, fan and food aside, the most obvious target for critics is the decision by Crist, who reportedly made Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s shortlist as a potential running-mate in 2008, to abandon the GOP in a quest for the U.S. Senate in 2010. Crist ran as an independent against Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek.
Without a party backing him, Crist earned 30 percent of the vote — 10 percent more than Meek — but was handily outstripped by former state House Speaker Rubio, whose 49 percent victory sent him to Washington.
Two years later, Crist revealed his registration as a Democrat at a White House Christmas party, where he was accompanied by his wife, Carole.
The Crists were married in 2008 — Crist was also married briefly in his early 20s — at the Vinoy Renaissance Resort in the former governor’s hometown, which he affectionately calls “The ‘Burg.”
Since then, Crist has been fiercely protective of his wife, who periodically accompanies him on the campaign trail but who is reportedly a major, behind-the-scenes force.
One of the more memorable moments of the Crist wedding featured a boozy Jim Greer, hand-picked by Crist to chair the Republican Party of Florida, who took the stage to belt out several Elvis Presley songs. Greer later pleaded guilty to four counts of grand theft and one count of money laundering and served an 18-month prison sentence. In a salacious tell-all released this summer, Greer excoriated his former pal Crist as a backstabber who would do practically anything to climb to the top of the political heap.
Crist maintains that he knew nothing of Greer’s wrongdoing.
Courting Florida Democrats for more than a year, Crist — a onetime “Reagan Republican” who as a state senator sponsored legislation requiring inmates to serve 85 percent of their prison time and at one time embraced the nickname “Chain Gang Charlie” — repeatedly invokes the mantra that “I didn’t leave my party, my party left me.”
His memoir, released this summer, is titled “The Party’s Over: How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat.”
Crist points to his record bucking his own GOP as chief of state to demonstrate support for causes more aligned with his new party than the one he dumped.
One of his first actions as governor was to make it easier for convicted felons to get their rights restored, including the right to vote. He issued an executive order forcing polls to stay open later during the 2008 presidential election after reports of voters waiting in long lines to cast their ballots. He vetoed legislation that would have forced women to have ultrasounds before getting abortions, a measure later passed by the GOP-dominated Legislature and signed by Scott. In his final year in office, Crist inflamed Republicans when he axed a bill that would have done away with teacher tenure.
This year, Crist apologized to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community for his previous support of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in Florida.
He’s made increased education funding and the environment two of his top campaign priorities.
“All we need is somebody to lead with common sense again. That’s why I’m running. Who understands that everybody counts. That’ we’re all in this together,” Crist told hundreds of black activists in Panama City this month. “It really comes down to one word. Respect. It’s about respect. … These things matter. What goes around is coming around. It’s coming around in 24 days as long as we work hard and do what’s right. We’re going to finish strong.”
“The News Service of Florida’s Dara Kam contributed to this report.”
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