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Charlie Crist: GOP candidates run the financial spectrum

He's a pay-as-you-go kind of guy who isn't too focused on accumulating wealth.

By SCOTT BARANCIK
Published July 9, 2006


 


Charlie Crist (R)
Financial profile
Public life
Private life
 
Jim Davis (D)
Financial profile
Public life
Private life

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Charlie Crist eats one meal a day and considers himself generous if he tips a waiter 20 percent. He uses a single Visa credit card and never carries a balance. He rents a one-bedroom St. Petersburg apartment that has a kitchen decor that debuted the same year as Saturday Night Live.

Crist's tax returns are remarkably bland. The 49-year-old bachelor owns no property or corporate stock, has zero debt and takes the standard deduction instead of itemizing. He gave a total of just $1,000 to three charities last year, including a not-for-profit that represents the interests of recreational anglers.

"This guy could go to H&R Block and get his taxes done," said Ed Slott, a New York accountant who reviewed the tax returns of Florida's four leading gubernatorial contenders for the St. Petersburg Times.

Florida's attorney general permits himself a couple of indulgences. He tools around in a 1997 Jaguar XK8 convertible he bought used several years ago, leases a yellow 2006 Mustang V-6 convertible and picked up a new, 25-foot fishing boat at last year's St. Petersburg Boat Show.

But in a recent interview, the dapper lawyer was never more animated than when discussing the economic advantages of lettuce in a bag versus the head.

Thanks to his austere ways and his father's sound financial advice - Crist long ago delegated responsibility for managing his investments to 74-year-old Charles Sr. - he can afford to live a little higher these days. Although he rarely earned more than $40,000 a year before making the leap to statewide office and six-figure salaries in 2001, the Republican candidate has managed to build a net worth of $422,000, including about $185,000 for retirement, $97,000 in an investment account, $15,000 in cash and $125,000 worth of vehicles and household goods.

He and his three sisters also stand to inherit a tidy sum from parents Charles Sr., a physician, and Nancy. The elder Crists paid $22,000 in 1969 for a large waterfront lot on St. Petersburg's Snell Isle, built a house on it, and wisely never left.

But while thankful for the security of his growing wealth, Crist is far from focused on it. He voluntarily sold all of his individual company stocks in 2002 after becoming state attorney general, even though it meant taking a 20 percent loss. A lifelong renter, he hasn't benefited from the recent runup in property values.

In fact, the more time one spends with Charlie Crist and those around him, the clearer it becomes that he has accumulated wealth largely in spite of himself.

It's an uncommon profile for a man of his age, station and milieu, and odder still when you consider he is being backed by one of the country's best-known libertines, billionaire developer Donald Trump.

"I don't have any debt, and there's a reason: I just sleep a lot better that way," says Crist. "It's just how I am."

Crist is a product of St. Petersburg, where his family moved when he was a toddler. He played quarterback at St. Petersburg High School, was a walk-on player at Wake Forest University and later graduated from Florida State.

Political foes have long made hay of his struggle to become a lawyer: his rejection by Stetson University's law school, where his ubiquitous father was a director; his graduation from the Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Ala., after which he twice failed the bar exam before passing on try No. 3; his pursuit, detractors say, of a legal career supposedly as mediocre as it was brief.

His first permanent position was as general counsel for the National Association of Professional Baseball Players, the St. Petersburg-based controlling body for minor league systems in the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. He saw the job description on Stetson's placement board and couldn't believe his luck. "A combination of two things I love: sports and law," he says.

Looking back, it's hard to imagine a greenhorn lawyer qualifying for the position. Minor League Baseball, as it would later be called, expected its general counsel to offer legal opinions on everything from player contracts and franchise sales to bogus merchandise and spats with its major-league counterpart, all of it across several international borders.

Crist got the job. Former baseball administrator Sal Artiaga says Crist's enthusiasm, sports background and highly respected local family served him well. Charles Sr. says the fact that his son was young and inexpensive probably also played a role.

Crist stayed with the organization for five years. Artiaga, second in command when Crist came on board, says Crist had good analytical skills, great people skills and a disciplined, orderly nature that helped him stay on top of projects.

But in what would become a pattern over his career, Crist wanted more, and a referral from a family friend provided an outlet. In 1984, with the permission of his baseball bosses, he filed suit on behalf of a 40-year-old retarded woman whose caretaker mother had died after elective surgery. He spent about six months preparing the case, working odd hours at his full-time job, and then hired an experienced trial lawyer to argue before the jury. Crist won the case several years later, and the contingency fee helped form the nut for his current investment portfolio.

Crist's father suggested his son consider doing plaintiffs' work full-time. But "he wasn't gonna do it," Charles Sr. says. "He wanted to get into public service."

In 1986, Crist, who had participated in his father's School Board campaigns from the age of 9, ran for a seat in the state Senate. Then 29 and a paper pauper - he filled out only one of the 25 blank lines left for assets on his financial disclosure form: 1978 Pontiac, $2,500 - he did well enough in the Republican primary to get to an October runoff, though he didn't advance.

In 1987, Crist joined the one-man law firm run by brother-in-law J. Emory Wood. A cum laude graduate of Stetson who is board certified in civil trial law, Wood was hired by insurance companies to represent policyholders who had been sued. Many were people who had been in auto accidents.

As with the baseball job, Crist arrived with scant experience. His brother-in-law says that wasn't a problem. "I wasn't in need of someone to bring in a book of business. I was in need of someone I could trust," he says. "No one that has ever met Charlie did not trust him or did not like him. That was a tremendous quality for a (small firm like mine."

Before long, Wood & Associates P.A. became Wood & Crist P.A., and Crist, after investing roughly $15,000 in the firm, assumed a 40 percent equity share to Wood's 60 percent. Crist soon proved his worth, landing a medical insurance client that led the firm into a new and lucrative realm, defending doctors against malpractice claims.

But Crist's "path of service," as his campaign Web site puts it, would not be interrupted for long. After Florida Republican Connie Mack won a U.S. Senate seat in 1988, Crist left the law firm for a year to serve as his state director. In 1992, Crist himself re-entered the election grind, running a second time for state Senate and winning.

Like many "part-time" Florida lawmakers, Crist struggled to maintain his regular workload, and at one point concluded he was failing. Wood says Crist insisted on reducing his own cut of the law firm's profits while continuing to pay his full share of expenses.

But at times the line blurred between private work and political career. In 1997, for example, Crist filed suit against Florida Power as a private citizen to challenge a controversial rate hike. Former law associate Phillip Nelson says the firm's lawyers were happy to assist with this and other of Crist's occasional pro bono causes. Nelson says he was gratified when the utility eventually reversed itself.

"Charlie's absolute passion and commitment to the people of the state was what impressed me the most," Nelson says. "When he held his (state) Senate seat, everything else took a back seat."

Not everyone considered Crist selfless. Some critics called his lawsuit a cynical grab for votes during an unsuccessful 1998 run for the U.S. Senate. Wood tenses when asked if his law firm had, in effect, provided unreported, in-kind support to Crist's campaign. "You know, I love him like a brother, and I'd do anything in the world for him, and he'd do anything in the world for me, as long as it's honest and ethical," he says. "There's a lot more to the world than campaigns and money. There's love and family, and that's what it was."

Crist ended the law firm partnership in 1999 when Gov. Jeb Bush named him deputy secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Since then, Crist has lived on taxpayer dollars, first as state education commissioner, now as attorney general, both of them elected posts.

His net worth has grown more slowly in recent years, curtailed by the stock market's decline as well as Crist's decision to put money into things that make him happy - cars and a boat - but don't appreciate.

Crist says he's not saving for anything in particular. He prefers in-state vacations during long weekends to "gargantuan" trips elsewhere and says he hopes never to retire. The retirement funds are there if his health fails him.

Crist says it smarts when political foes suggest he is enjoying some sort of prolonged adolescence, when they suggest that a man who doesn't have a family and a mortgage cannot relate to those who do. On the contrary, Crist says, as the least wealthy of the gubernatorial contenders, he is more like "everyday people." When the power or phone companies raise their bills, he says, he feels it.

Charles Sr. says he is happy with his son's financial portfolio. Thanks in part to his own handiwork, the pot has grown from near zero to more than $400,000 within 20 years. The total puts Crist ahead of roughly half of Florida's 160 lawmakers and most Floridians his age.

Recently, Charles Sr. suggested some changes. He persuaded his son to stop making retirement contributions from his paycheck for the time being, given Crist's growing expenses. And he moved the money in Crist's Fidelity investment account from mutual funds to money markets, which Charles Sr. says are offering almost a five percent annual return now.

"When you have your money in money markets, you sleep just fine at night," Charles Sr. says. "The principal is safe."

Times staff researchers Caryn Baird and Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

[Last modified July 9, 2006, 05:47:17]


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