Finding Crist: the auspicious beginnings of Charlie Crist’s controversial candidacy 

Former Florida governor launches campaign to be re-elected, this time as a Democrat

Like all political spin cycles should, it starts on a spiral staircase.

On Oct. 15, at the tastefully extravagant downtown penthouse of Democratic fundraiser and former Florida Democratic Party chairman Bob Poe, former Republican governor Charlie Crist is perched midway up the stairs, facing a room full of local progressive activists, elected officials and social climbers who’ve gathered before the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking downtown Orlando. Crist has already made his rounds of the crowd and been mobbed for cell-phone selfies and polite hellos. (“Ah, you’re a journalist,” he said to me, before handing me his Morgan & Morgan business card.

“Stay in touch.”) Now he’s about to deliver his pitch.

Except he isn’t.

From about five feet above the assembled crowd, Crist delivers what can best be described as a flirtation with political re-entry, wishing and washing just above the cracks of electoral calculus like a wet finger stuck in the wind of the moment to determine its direction. Florida is in trouble, we deserve better, promises have been broken, something’s got to give, “Right, Billy?” He points. I heckle, “Announce, already.” The room laughs. A few minutes later, Orange County Comptroller Martha Haynie, a Republican, offers that she’ll hop parties if he hops into the political fray – this is, after all, a soft opening for Crist’s inevitable announcement that he will be running for governor in 2014, and everyone knows it – though later Haynie will tell the Orlando Sentinel that she was caught up in the moment. The whole room was.

One week later, Oct. 22, walking up to a private gathering at attorney John Morgan’s Altamonte Springs mansion organized for U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Crist spots me coming down the sidewalk and points again. “Billy!” he says, careful to never forget a face; small talk follows, but nothing of substance. Inside, Reid – fresh from extensive negotiations to end the federal government shutdown – speaks hoarsely and quietly of “Florida’s next great governor, Charlie Crist” to a small, well-heeled audience that includes Poe and Sen. Bill Nelson.

That same night, at the Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando annual gala, Congressman Alan Grayson, D-Kissimmee, buttonholes me about the looming gubernatorial race. “I’m just worried there might be a Charlie problem,” he says, pointing out the obvious: Progressives don’t know what to do with their former enemy playing on the home team. There is certainly a Charlie problem.

For nearly three years, Democrats have been aware of Crist’s likely (and unlikely) candidacy, ever since the first Morgan & Morgan advertisement aired with Crist reciting that “for the people” tagline. There’s certainly been a grooming process following Crist’s failure as a spurned independent against Republican Marco Rubio in the 2010 U.S. Senate race, but to some degree it’s also been a dramatic pause for the former governor, attorney general and education commissioner, a chance for perceptions to reset under the tutelage of Morgan, a political powerhouse who ranked 17th nationally in fundraising for President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2012. In that time, only one viable Democratic candidate – former Florida Senate minority leader Nan Rich – has emerged, albeit without much traction, political or financial. Rich may have been a twice-featured speaker at the Florida Democratic Party conference in Orlando in late October, but it was Crist – a smiling, hand-shaking machine – who walked away with all the headlines. Rich has, expectedly and even rightfully, been defensive about the Crist christening, contrasting his “style over substance” demeanor with her own progressive record in the legislature.

But what is Crist’s substance these days?

“Do you think I can get a sitdown with Charlie to hash this all out before his announcement?” I ask Poe about a week before the projected Nov. 4 event.

He says yes, directing my request through existing consultant channels remaining from Obama’s 2012 Florida campaign, Kevin Cate and Steve Schale. I shoot an email to John Morgan to be safe, and he agrees to put in a good word. Finally, I write an email to the address on Charlie’s card: “Any chance for a proper phoner or a sitdown? Thanks.”

Nothing happens.

There’s more to finding Charlie Crist than standing next to him in a room. While some of the state’s Democrats are already voicing support for the former Republican – “He’s evolved” and “People change” are popular refrains in certain circles – others aren’t so quick to forgive. Crist still has a lot to answer for in a state where progressives have held constant vigil against the last three years of Tea Party-style governance from Gov. Rick Scott (the now-nascent Pink Slip Rick movement from liberal group Florida Watch Action comes to mind). There’s a real fear that this seemingly inevitable race toward the middle – and backward – for the party, by way of utilizing one of its most famous foes, will drive down the motivation and mobilization that led to President Obama’s 2012 victory, along with some notable down-ticket legislative gains. In short, Crist has a trust problem among the more ardent of the liberal base.

“I think the power brokers and consultants came up with this idea and too many Democrats have bought into the idea that Crist is the only person who can win,” Florida Democratic Party Progressive Caucus president Susan Smith says, communicating via Internet from her European vacation. “You won’t have passion and buy-in from many in the grassroots. You don’t motivate volunteers with the lesser of two evils. You motivate volunteers by giving them something positive to vote for.”

Crist has worked on his positive side. He went full Dem in his defense of President Obama at the Democratic National Convention last September, likely hoping that the high-profile move would jump-start his rebranding. The lead-in to his announcement has consisted of some sad-faced groveling – “Tell me what I can do to help,” he pleaded on his first YouTube campaign teaser released in late October – but is his humility even genuine?

“I feel like I’m living in an alternate universe,” Smith, who supports the Rich campaign, says. “If someone had said to all of these Dems two years ago that Crist would soon be crowned their party leader, they would have been gobsmacked. How can anyone take his statements or positions seriously?”

And there’s more to politics than positions. Crist has a series of political and financial loose ends that will likely be exploited by the Republican Party as the campaign rolls along. Three noted Crist donors faced federal probes for fraud as Crist mounted his campaign against Marco Rubio in 2009, though Crist backed away from the scandals at the time by saying, “I’ve done nothing wrong,” according to political website Talking Points Memo. Crist’s footing was even more directly challenged when former Republican Party of Florida chair Jim Greer was threatening to spill the beans on his former boss and best friend earlier this year over alleged campaign finance fraud; Greer eventually took a plea, though his depositions are still out there. Crist was once considered a front-runner to be John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate in the 2008 presidential race, but he lost out to Alaskan governor Sarah Palin. It’s a messy rap sheet to gloss over with a humble face.

Moreover, if Crist wanted to be governor of Florida so badly, why didn’t he run for re-election in 2010, rather than parlaying the apparent opportunism of a Senate bid? In that sense, Crist created his own opponent, Gov. Rick Scott, and opened the door for the Tea Party lurch to the right of the 2010 elections. He made this mess.

These are some of the questions I’m hoping to broach with Crist in an interview. How can Democrats trust you? Was there a moment of sincere change? What is the compelling issue that gets you out of bed in the morning, beyond just “the people” or the middle class?

“So, if you had to draw odds on me getting any phone time with Charlie, how much would you bet?” I shoot a message to Poe, two days after my initial request.

“At this point, I wouldn’t. Everyone is trying to get to him,” Poe responds. “It’s totally out of my realm, but I’ll give it another push.”

Nothing happens.

On Friday, Nov. 1, Crist pulls a surprise move Oand files with the state Division of Elections to run for governor as a Democrat three days before his scheduled “Special Announcement and Rally” in St. Petersburg. Republicans leap for the news cycle and reiterate their promise to blow millions to take aim at Crist’s character straight out of the gate with ad buys. I book a hotel in St. Pete near the rally for Sunday night in hope of some kind of last-ditch interview coup.

A surprise text comes in from Bob Poe Sunday evening. “We are at the Vinoy,” it reads, speaking of a classier hotel up the road. “Getting ready to go out for a walk if you want to meet up.”

This is my chance! Except it isn’t. Poe meets me at an outdoor café along St. Pete Bay’s Beach Avenue with his partner Ken in tow. Newly hired fundraising consultant Jessica Clark, also from the Florida Obama operation, joins us shortly after. Poe is now officially chair of Crist’s independent (and therefore unlimited) fundraising committee, “Charlie Crist for Florida,” and has now taken to teasing me about getting an interview with Crist, though he still hasn’t counted me out completely.

Poe recalls having difficulty running against Crist’s general likability when he was chairing the Florida Democratic Party. His conversion to working for Crist is one mostly borne of practicality. The Legislature won’t go blue until at least the next redistricting cycle in eight years. “I worked my way back from there,” he says. “The governor has the ability to put his thumb on the scale with the Legislature when it comes to redistricting and to make sure that they do what they’re supposed to do. This is the only way for the state to be more reflective of the population.”

As for the dissension in the Democratic ranks, Poe calls it “disappointing.”

“Democrats get into primaries. There are a lot of times that you have to support candidates that you opposed initially,” he says. “If there are two Democrats in a primary, and one wins, you get on the team.”

(In fairness, Susan Smith says she “will vote for the nominee, but I won’t be able to work for him.”)

We speak a little bit about Crist’s past problems with key Democratic social issues like abortion (he remains pro-life, but doesn’t want to force his agenda on anyone) and LGBT issues. Crist campaigned in 2008 for the anti-gay marriage Amendment 2, for instance, drawing recent published ire from Florida GLBT Democratic Caucus legislative director Michael Rajner. Last month at the statewide Democratic conference, Poe says, Crist sat down with Rajner for a long talk on the issue, wherein Crist went beyond saying that he had simply evolved on the issue, to saying that he now has the “courage” to be on the right side of it. Crist followed the meeting by recording a video supporting a number of LGBT issues, including marriage. (On Nov. 5, Crist tweeted his support of a bipartisan nondiscrimination bill introduced by gay state Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, saying he’d sign it.)

Poe pulls out his phone to show me the first of the promised Republican attack ads. It’s a pretty weak collection of campaign character judgments by other Democrats on Charlie over the years: Senate opponent Kendrick Meek, Al Gore (“a flop-flipper,” is Gore’s assessment), former Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Thurman.

“A lot of this boils down to petty jealousy and hurt feelings and those kinds of things,” says Poe. “I think the Republicans are handling this pretty badly.”

The Republicans and Rick Scott have promised another $100 million campaign to rival the 2010 gubernatorial stakes. Most of that, says Poe, will be spent smearing Crist, because Scott’s record and polling aren’t bragging material. In September, Republicans hinted that some of that money could be used to sabotage the primary – fund Nan Rich’s primary campaign as a means of either avoiding a race with or getting back at their ex-husband Charlie Crist. Rich indicated to the Miami Herald, “I’ll take all the help I can get so I can then beat Rick Scott in the general election.”

As of Sept. 30, Rich’s campaign only had $63,000 in the bank after more than a year out; she recently demanded 10 primary debates to cover the media markets she won’t be able to buy into. Conversely, the Crist campaign is expecting to raise $50 million.

Everybody is a little antsy about the morning’s festivities. Jessica Clark’s just gotten back from the staging of the event. She reports that the porta-potties had to be moved from behind the stage, you know, lest Crist be photographed next to toilets as he announces – some comparison to Mitt Romney landing in front of Donald Trump’s plane is drawn. I try to get a better idea of what to expect from the festivities on this “Crist-mas Eve” (big laughs), but no one’s talking seriously anymore.

“I’ve arranged to have Barack skydive in,” Poe says.

“So, Madonna’s singing?” I ask.

“Yes.”

At 8 a.m. on Monday, my phone rings. It’s Bob Poe.

“I just had a really good idea,” he says. “Charlie is supposed to walk from his condo down to the stage around 9:30. Maybe you could go scope it out and see if you can’t throw a few questions at him along the way.”

After walking a mile in the wrong direction, I find my way to a bench outside the address provided. Two of John Morgan’s kids show up around 9 a.m., so it’s obviously the right place. After about 45 minutes of pathetic reconnaissance, I ditch my surveillance post, thinking that I just saw the shadow of Crist get into an SUV. I hoof my way over to Albert Whitted Park for the rally, passing just one protester with a “Charlie = Opportunist” poster and some poorly conceived Charlie “fans” sponsored by the Republican Party of Florida spread about (“Charlie Crist Is a Fan of Whatever You Want Him to Be,” they read.)

The crowd in favor of Crist isn’t as big as I expected, but this is a Monday morning. I squeeze my way up front with Crist’s family, some elected officials and Poe. While a soundtrack borrowed directly from the Obama iPod (Springsteen, U2, some Motown) plays, a woman behind me screams into her cell phone. “I love me some Charlie Crist! She’s so funny. She says, ‘Girl, I knew I’d turn you into a Democrat.’” Overhead, a banner plane – also funded by the RPOF – circles promoting a misleading website, CharlieForFlorida.com.

“That’s not yours?” I ask Poe.

“Not unless I post-dated the check,” he says. Today is the first day that the campaign is actually allowed to raise – and spend – money.

Following introductions from Congresswoman Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, former minority leader Dan Gelber and soon-to-be St. Pete mayor Rick Kriseman, Crist bounds onto the stage to John Fogerty’s “Centerfield.”

“My friends, I don’t have to tell you that what we have here in Florida isn’t working,” Crist says, adding, “So today I announce that I am running for governor” a few minutes later.

Crist starts with his record, naturally: strong on education, smart on taxes, kind to seniors, good on voting rights, tough on crime, green on the environment. Then it’s on to Rick Scott’s economy: “cronyism.”

“I’m sorry, Gov. Scott, but flying around the state in your private jet to hold press conferences is not how we create an economy that grows the middle class,” he jabs.

A five-point political platform is then rolled out to varying degrees of cheers – education, tax cuts for the middle class, infrastructural investments, focus on renewable energy, tourism and trade – before soft-focusing on a Florida that he’d like to think he represents to most voters: right down the middle.

“People come here because we are a state where traditionally any middle-class family can live the American Dream, and do it living in paradise,” he smiles. “And we can be that state again.”

Nan Rich is not mentioned.

As Charlie dismounts into the small horde of well-wishers and camera crews, Poe tells me to stick by his side. “You’ll get your face-to-face. He’s going to work the crowd for a while.”

And so I do, following Crist’s face as it rises and falls through the hugs and camera snaps of adoration, never losing my position, repeating my questions to be shot out at a rapid pace when he comes to me. But that doesn’t happen.

Crist locks eyes with me, pulls out his index-finger gunpoint, and says, “Thank you for coming out, Billy.”

A baby is rolled up in a carriage. Crist kisses the boy on the forehead for the cameras (“He’s so serious!” he vamps), and drives away in as much of a blur as he arrived.

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