By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
The state attorney general says he's not upset when a speech attendee asks if he is gay. His answer: "I'm not."
TAMPA - Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist had just finished a lunchtime talk to the Tiger Bay Club on Friday when someone asked The Question.
"I have heard that you were gay, sir, and I wanted to know if that was true," asked Lee DeCesare. The hotel meeting room fell silent.
"I'm not," Crist replied.
With that two-word answer, Crist may have defused a potentially troublesome whisper campaign that is already under way about his prospects for the 2006 governor's race.
Crist, who is widely expected to run, would be appealing for conservative votes in what's likely to be a crowded Republican primary.
But the answer also might embolden his rivals to speculate more openly about his private life.
Crist is considered a leading Republican candidate for governor, along with Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings and Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher.
Well-mannered, articulate and impeccably groomed, Crist appears to have a complete political package with one exception: He's single.
Having a spouse by your side is considered a basic ingredient for any successful politician. Gallagher, a longtime bachelor, is married and the father of a 6-year-old. Jennings is single.
For Friday's Tiger Bay Club meeting at the Wyndham Harbour Island hotel, Crist took off his suit jacket and spoke for 15 minutes about his record as attorney general, including his support for a stronger state civil rights measure and the need for laws to keep probation violators in prison.
Then came the question.
DeCesare, who taught English at Hillsborough Community College, first corrected Crist on a grammatical point. Then she asked a three-part question about whether he's gay, if he would open his divorce file and his views on discrimination against gays.
"I'm not, the records are open, and we shouldn't discriminate against anyone," Crist answered in a steady voice. The crowd of about 40 people applauded.
DeCesare, 72, a Democrat from Madeira Beach who writes a column for Tampa's weekly La Gaceta, a tri-lingual weekly newspaper in Tampa, said she's heard "whispers" about Crist before. She recalled his outspoken criticism in 1998 of a college play, paid for with tax dollars, that he said portrayed Jesus as gay.
"He's unctuously charming," DeCesare later said of Crist, "but underneath, he's got that Republican template."
Other Tiger Bay members said they were surprised by the question.
"Where did that come from? I have no clue," said Carl Zielonka, a dentist, who said he was a Democrat and not a Crist supporter. "And who cares if he is? That's the way I look at it."
"It was a very direct answer," said Patrick Manteiga, a Democrat and editor and publisher of La Gaceta. "That rumor has been going around a long time, and I've never heard anyone ask it."
Crist's divorce is on file at the Pinellas County clerk's office. It shows Crist married Amanda Morrow in Delray Beach in July 1979. Seven months later, the marriage ended. The couple had no children.
Friday's audience included Crist's mother, Nancy, who did not seem surprised by the question.
"It's inevitable," she said. "It's part of politics. It's an open book."
Afterward, Crist, unflappable as always, said he was not offended by the question.
"If you can't stand the heat, don't go in the kitchen," Crist said. "It's part of the game."