tampabay.com

Crist sheds lightweight image

The state attorney general balances consumer advocacy with keeping the business community in his corner.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published January 23, 2005


PALMETTO - As hundreds of people crowded into a youth center for a banquet honoring the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a smiling figure happily made his way around the room.

"Hello, my friend," he told an acquaintance. "Hey, buddy," he welcomed another. "Great to see you," he told a third. Somebody stuck a pink carnation in his lapel as he went from table to table with his girlfriend alongside, beaming at everyone in sight.

By the looks of it, life is good - another favorite expression of Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist. After two years in office, he's chasing a much bigger goal.

He wants to be governor.

On a recent Friday evening, Crist was in Palmetto, near Bradenton, where he told a racially diverse crowd of his decision to review an unsolved 1951 case in which the civil rights leader Harry T. Moore and his wife were killed when a firebomb blew up their house on Christmas night.

Speaking to a predominantly Democratic audience that included many of Manatee County's African-American leaders, the Republican attorney general drew a standing ovation when he mentioned his interest in the decades-old firebombing.

"Let me assure you good people today that the state of Florida intends to investigate this case, even though it is old, with all the energy, and all of the might, in every fiber in my body," Crist said firmly.

When Crist ran for attorney general in 2002, rivals called him unqualified and unethical. He was derided as a vacuous "Chain Gang Charlie" who advocated a return to roadside prison labor gangs, hitched free rides on corporate jets, flunked the Bar exam twice and practiced little law.

Dismissed as a lightweight, Crist won the election and got a job title steeped in the kind of gravitas that had long eluded him: "General."

Now he's seen as a strong contender to succeed Jeb Bush in 2007.

Halfway through his first term, the 48-year-old former St. Petersburg state senator has continued the populist style of his Democratic predecessor, Bob Butterworth.

"I think you can use the authority of this office to bring about good results," Crist said, sitting in his Capitol office a few days before the Palmetto banquet. "If you have to take them to court, so be it."

Being "the people's lawyer," as he calls his job, can be good politics, too.

Crist set up a hotline that has logged more than 8,000 consumer complaints, even though Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson already had one.

He sued to block a telephone rate hike and filed nearly a dozen lawsuits against people who allegedly gouged consumers after last year's hurricanes. He told legislators the renewal of existing public records exemptions required a two-thirds vote in both houses, not the simple majority they wanted.

He lobbied the Legislature for a new civil rights law that allowed the office to initiate discrimination lawsuits more easily, and then sued a hotel in Perry after black guests said they were subjected to discrimination.

After Hurricane Charley last year, Crist was seen on TV standing at Gov. Jeb Bush's side, wearing a T-shirt with the words "ATTORNEY GENERAL" in block letters.

To some, it was vintage Crist, showboating for the cameras. But Crist said he was doing his job, and following the advice of his predecessor, Bob Butterworth, a Democrat.

"He said the most important piece of advice I can give you is, get there," Crist said. "It's important to have a presence from the attorney general's office to show that you're there, and you care."

By emphasizing consumer affairs, Crist is walking a delicate political line. He is seeking to safeguard taxpayers from predatory companies without alienating segments of the business community whose financial support he will need in an expected race for governor next year.

"He has done a masterful job," said Ken Plante, a former Republican senator who lobbies for corporations. "He doesn't really bad-mouth anybody until he really knows they have done something bad. He doesn't come in pounding on industry."

When Crist's office questioned whether a major Toyota distributor represented by Plante was telling motorists to change their oil more often than required by the manufacturer, the matter was resolved quietly, without publicity.

When another Plante client, 7-Eleven, faced some complaints of price gouging after last year's hurricanes, the matter was resolved quietly.

"He was handling it without bringing undue embarrassing publicity to the business community - until he found that they did something wrong," Plante said.

"A lot of people took shots at him, and that may have lowered expectations," said Crist's chief of staff and top deputy, George LeMieux. "That's not always a bad thing."

Crist didn't clean house at the attorney general's office. He kept most employees hired by his predecessors, many of them Democrats.

He added Clay Roberts, a former director of the state elections division, and hired former public counsel Jack Shreve to advise him on utilities issues. Former state Rep. John Carassas of Belleair became regional director for the Tampa Bay area.

Crist's most trusted adviser is LeMieux, 35, who was a lawyer in Fort Lauderdale and a former chairman of the Broward Republican Party.

LeMieux summarized the agency's philosophy. "If we have a problem with a company, we call them. If that is not successful, we will send a subpoena. If that is not successful, we will sue them, but that is a last resort," LeMieux said. "If we can deal with a business and fix a problem, that's the general's philosophy."

At recent appearances honoring police officers, addressing a Tiger Bay Club and at the 12th annual Palmetto Youth Center banquet, Crist smoothly worked each crowd with care, appearing to savor the small talk, handshaking and picture-taking that other politicians find tedious.

He is unfailingly polite and neatly dressed, and speaks in the crisp, unaccented diction of a news anchor. His shock of white hair contrasts sharply with his tanned face - a reflection of his Greek heritage more than his love of the sun. A light eater, he has a bowl of soup and crackers for lunch and swims regularly to stay fit. He dislikes flying on small planes; they make him nervous.

To Crist, everyone is a "dear friend." After Manatee Sheriff Charlie Wells gave him a lavish buildup in Palmetto, Crist replied: "I love you. God bless you."

To critics such as Lee DeCesare, who surprised Crist with a question about his sexual orientation at a Tiger Bay meeting, Crist is "unctuously charming." To others, he's a masterful politician who simply outworks everybody at being liked.

"He always remembers my name, and I've never written anything positive about him," said Patrick Manteiga, publisher of the Tampa weekly La Gaceta.

Former state Rep. Tom Warner, a Republican who ran against Crist in 2002 and who worked as Butterworth's solicitor general, said Crist should be more aggressive in protecting consumers. He said Crist intervened in the phone-rate increase long after it cleared the Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush.

"I don't think he was really much of a player in that," Warner said. "It wasn't until it was after the fact and causing a lot of problems that he took steps to try to oppose it. The prior attorney general would have been a lot more proactive while that issue was in the Legislature."

The thought of a campaign for governor is never far from Crist's mind. He is considering hiring veteran Republican media adviser Stuart Stevens, and he could reap the benefits from having endorsed Cuban-American Mel Martinez early in his race for U.S. Senate last year. Martinez has said he believes in settling political IOUs.

Crist likely will face Republican competition from Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings and Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, and Gov. Bush suggested recently he is not likely to take sides in the primary as he prepares to leave office.

"Probably not," Bush said.

Only one Florida attorney general has gone on to become governor: Park Trammell in 1912. Three others, Earl Faircloth, Bob Shevin and Jim Smith, all ran for governor and lost.

Warner says that's probably not a coincidence.

"If you do a good job, you're going to make a lot of people mad," Warner said. "Much of the time, you're making angry the people who tend to contribute to campaigns."

Two years ago, Warner belittled Crist as "not qualified" to be the state's top lawyer, a liability to the Republican ticket and too eager to accept campaign money from utilities and developers.

Today, Warner says: "Charlie's a very good politician. He has brought in some people who know what they're doing. It's not a secret that he's running for governor."

CHARLIE CRIST

1992-1998: State senator

1999-2000: Secretary of Florida Department

of Business and Professional Regulation

2001-2003: Florida education commissioner

2003-present: Florida attorney general