Crist: Dismissed, even ridiculed, but skillfully steering clear of conflict

Published July 31, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - Charlie Crist's political role models are Ronald Reagan and Connie Mack, and he has spent his public career emulating both men.

Reagan was the "Great Communicator" whose great skill as president was connecting with people. Mack was the two-term Florida senator known for civility and a "less taxes, more freedom" philosophy.

Neither seemed burdened by the complexities of public policy, but both enjoyed great success.

Like Crist, both men conveyed hopeful messages. Like Crist, both were fiscal conservatives, not social conservatives - and there's a big difference.

As a state senator from St. Petersburg more than a decade ago, Crist's tough but simplistic talk against prison inmates earned him the name "Chain Gang Charlie," and it wasn't meant as a compliment.

As a U.S. Senate candidate in 1998, he lost badly to Democrat Bob Graham but began building a formidable statewide political base while Jeb Bush's winning campaign dominated public attention.

As a candidate for attorney general in 2002, Crist was dismissed as a legal lightweight who needed three tries to pass the Bar exam. But he became the first Republican attorney general in Florida's history, and he has focused on consumer protection and civil rights as the state's top lawyer.

With polls showing Crist pulling away from primary opponent Tom Gallagher, the Republican nomination for governor is now clearly within his reach.

He has outworked his opponents, received sage advice and, for the most part, staked out safe political positions, succeeding largely through the force of his personality.

"You just can't get past what a really nice guy he is," says Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas County teacher union and a self-described liberal Democrat.

Conflict is what Crist will try to avoid the most. He exhibits a keen sense of what the public wants and skillfully uses the media to convey his message.

"Charlie may not be the sharpest knife in the kitchen, but he's a heck of a good politician," said Bruce Smathers, a Jacksonville lawyer and former Democratic secretary of state. "Image does an awful lot."

But it didn't happen overnight. Crist flopped in his first bid for public office.

As a 30-year-old lawyer working as general counsel to baseball's minor leagues, he lost a runoff for a Pinellas County-based state Senate seat in 1986 to Bob Melby, an optometrist and former representative who lost to Democrat Jeanne Malchon.

An outspoken liberal, Malchon could not stomach Crist's politics. But she could not help liking him, especially after he sent a bouquet of flowers to her desk in Tallahassee on the opening day of the 1987 session.

"He was always a very, very nice person," Malchon said. "Other than the fact that he was a Republican, I didn't have anything against him."

Six years later, in 1992, Crist ran again and won in a newly drawn Senate district with more Republican voters. He unseated a prominent Tampa liberal, Democratic Sen. Helen Gordon Davis.

In the interim, Crist took a job as state director for Mack, his political mentor, after working as a volunteer in Mack's first Senate race in 1988.

Crist arrived in Tallahassee just as Republicans were gaining a Senate majority, and he gained a committee chairmanship in 1994 that he never would have had under Democratic rule.

The committee's name was Executive Business, Ethics & Elections, not an ideal stage for generating big headlines. But the resourceful Crist had no trouble attracting attention.

He used the post to investigate misuse of state aircraft by public officials and to embarrass Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, whose 1994 campaign placed thousands of misleading phone calls to elderly voters that accused Jeb Bush of cheating on his taxes and opposing Medicare and Social Security.

Prompted by Crist, Chiles became the first Florida governor in modern times to give sworn testimony to a legislative committee.

Crist also championed charter schools, a requirement that prison inmates serve at least 85 percent of their sentences and a return to prison road gangs.

His Senate office became a nonstop publicity machine. Aides cranked out one press release after another.

There was "Crist to sponsor chain gang amendment" on May 4, 1995. "Crist named 'Legislator of the Year' by PBA" on July 28, 1995. "Crist sponsors bill to require 8-hour work day for inmates" on Sept. 21, 1995.

The idea of chain gangs played well with the media and voters, but it was largely a myth. Some Florida inmates wear leg irons, but they are not chained to each other as Crist envisioned.

Nonetheless, the proposal solidified Crist's reputation as a politician who talked tough on crime and was willing to offer simple solutions to a crime-weary public.

The co-sponsor of that chain gang proposal was Robert Wexler, a Democrat who later became a congressman from a liberal Palm Beach County district.

Like Wexler, Crist was not content to be a face in the Senate crowd. He quickly set his sights on higher office.

After flirting with Sam Gibbons' Tampa-area congressional seat, which eventually was won by Democrat Jim Davis, Crist decided to aim higher.

A turning point in Crist's political career came in 1997 when he challenged Democrat Bob Graham's bid for a third term in the U.S. Senate.

Much better-known Republicans such as U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum had bowed out, mindful of Graham's broad bipartisan support base and unmatched name recognition.

Not Crist.

He plunged ahead with a platform of abolishing the IRS and the U.S. Department of Education and imposing a penny-a-pound tax on sugar companies to clean up Everglades pollution. He wanted President Clinton to resign from office because of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Graham crushed Crist with 63 percent of the vote. On the same ticket that swept Jeb Bush into office as governor, Crist carried just four small counties: Clay, Collier, Okaloosa and Santa Rosa.

Though Crist lost the election, he won the hearts of many Republicans for his unflinching eagerness to take on Graham, a political icon.

Along the way, Crist met people such as John Falconetti, owner of a Jacksonville printing business, who helped Crist in his 2002 run for attorney general and is raising money and organizing support for his campaign for governor.

"I first met him when he was the sacrificial lamb against Bob Graham," said Falconetti, who walked door to door with Crist one Saturday in June. "He was willing to take on Bob Graham. A lot of people in the Republican Party didn't forget that."

After losing to Graham, Crist's consolation prize from Bush was a second-tier state job as a deputy secretary in the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

That became the launching pad for his return to politics as the state's last elected education commissioner in 2000.

The job was open because Tom Gallagher - Crist's current opponent in the GOP primary - decided to run for his old job of treasurer and insurance commissioner.

"Chain Gang Charlie" became "Chalkboard Charlie."

The short-term job came with little responsibility, as the state was shifting to a downsized Cabinet and an appointed commissioner reporting to a new Board of Education.

Crist still found a way to grab headlines. He publicly blasted Florida Atlantic University for allowing a student play, Corpus Christi, which depicted Jesus Christ as gay. Outraged professors at FAU and elsewhere accused Crist of trying to stifle academic freedom.

The lame-duck education commissioner's post, in a state where the governor dominated education policymaking, left plenty of time for Crist to plot his next political move.

He decided to run in 2002 for attorney general - a high-profile office that neatly conformed to Crist's populist instincts and emphasis on public safety, and one that would give his resume the gravitas it had long lacked.

The first Republican ever elected attorney general moved slowly at first. He left most experienced employees in their jobs, many of them lifelong Democrats.

"The idea was not to clean house," Crist said. "Their party registration didn't matter to me. They were good, hard-working public servants."

He delegated day-to-day operations to his chief of staff, George LeMieux, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who is now on leave from that job so he can perform the same function for Crist's campaign for governor.

As hurricanes zeroed in on Florida, Crist raced to the command posts close to the action. Critics said he was once again playing the publicity hound. Crist said he was doing his job.

"Get there and get on the ground," he said, recalling advice from his predecessor, Democrat Bob Butterworth. "People need to see that you care."

Crist filed lawsuits against hotels and gas stations for price-gouging after hurricanes.

He fined a Perry hotel owner $40,000 for discriminating against black patrons.

He reopened the unsolved case of Harry T. Moore of Mims, a black civil rights leader killed along with his wife when their home was firebombed in 1951. His office set up a hot line and offered a $25,000 reward in the still-unsolved case.

He rehired Jack Shreve, a utility expert who had retired as public counsel in cases involving telephone and electric rates.

Crist fought a controversial telephone rate increase but did not step in until after the Legislature passed it in 2003. The same Legislature passed a Crist-sponsored initiative making it easier for the attorney general to investigate civil rights violations.

He helped launch a Web site that encouraged consumers to comparison shop for cheaper prescription drugs.

And in a case that recalled Crist's days as a senator crusading against crime, he demanded state health officials stop providing free Viagra to sex offenders under the tax-supported Medicaid program.

Crist demanded the action after seeing a report on CNN that New York state was using tax money to provide Viagra to sex offenders. The next day, Bush ordered the program discontinued.

Reporter Steve Bousquet is at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.