CHARLIE CRIST: A fuzzy line divides personal and political lives
He’s a tireless campaigner, but in high school, he was known for his arm.
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published August 26, 2006
Charlie Crist was 10 years old when he first hit the campaign trail.
He went to a political forum and handed out leaflets for his father, who was running for the Pinellas County School Board.
“He was all over the place. He seemed to really enjoy it,” recalled Dr. Charles Crist, who won that 1966 election. “But I never had any conscious idea that this was going to be his life.”
Politics is Charlie Crist’s life.
It is an all-consuming passion that could soon reap a great reward: becoming governor of Florida.
Crist’s ability to intensely focus on the goal at hand while pushing everything else to life’s margins makes him an effective candidate.
But it has extracted a price.
He recently turned 50, an age when people naturally take stock of their personal lives. At a time when many men his age are focusing with their wives on raising kids, paying the mortgage and saving for retirement, Crist has never owned a home, and he does not have a wife or children.
His closest friend, fishing buddy and financial adviser is his 74-year-old father, a family doctor. They talk on the phone almost every day.
“Usually it’s in the morning,” the father said. “We talk about anything. Whatever’s going on.”
At his medical office, Dr. Crist makes small talk with patients about his son, and reports the comments to him. “It’s his focus group,” the father said.
Charlie Crist’s support system is his parents and three sisters, just as it was when he was growing up in St. Petersburg.
A close-knit, nurturing family has served Crist well. He treats people with kindness, sends handwritten thank-you notes of appreciation and is a consummate people-person politician. His distinctive looks make him instantly recognizable to many.
Crist says he very much wants a home and family. He has been dating the same woman for the past year, but winning the election for governor is what matters now.
“In sports, they call it 'being in the zone,’” Crist said. “You have to be focused to be successful.”
The original family name was Christodoulos, which would not fit easily on a bumper sticker. Crist’s father legally shortened the name in 1949, dropping the “h” in the process.
Crist’s paternal grandfather, Adam, emigrated from Cyprus to America around 1912. Unable to speak English, he wore his address pinned to his lapel when he arrived. He shined shoes for $5 a month.
After serving in the Army in World War I, he settled in the railroad town of Altoona, Pa., and opened a shoeshine parlor. A Republican, he passed his political lineage on to his son, who did the same with his own son.
“Back then, most immigrants were Democrats. They all loved Roosevelt,” Crist’s father said. “My father would say, 'I’m a businessman.’”
Charlie Crist likes to tell voters about his grandfather who lived to be 96, especially when the topic turns to immigration.
“He’s right here in my heart,” Crist told a Cuban-American crowd in Miami, patting his chest. “It’s important that I believe that Adam can see this day.”
Charlie Crist is the second-oldest of four children.
Born July 24, 1956, he is half Greek. His mother, Nancy (Lee) is Scots-Irish. The parents met at Penn State. Crist’s mother quit college after two years and his father got his degree and decided to become a doctor.
When Crist was 6 weeks old, the family packed up and left Altoona after his father was accepted at medical school at Emory University.
“He cried all the way to Atlanta,” Nancy Crist said of her only son.
The young doctor got a job in 1960 at what is now Bayfront Medical Center, and the Crists were on the move again — to St. Petersburg. Two more daughters, Elizabeth and Catherine, would soon join Crist and his older sister, Margaret.
With four young children and a fledgling medical practice, Dr. Crist said, “We ate a lot of peanut-butter sandwiches.”
Crist grew up in a sleepier St. Petersburg. The city’s downtown would practically hibernate during the summer months in the 1960s. Merchants covered their windows with brown paper, and those who could afford it headed for the mountains of North Carolina.
Crist loved football and basketball and especially being near the water — swimming, fishing and boating. In 1969, his parents bought a house on Snell Isle, where they still live.
His stay-at-home mom always had dinner ready by 5 o’clock. She kept such an orderly kitchen that she alphabetized the cans on the pantry shelves.
Some weeknights, the kids would join their father on house calls, riding the streets of St. Petersburg in the family’s blue Lincoln Continental and stopping for ice cream on the way home.
In the summers, Dr. Crist would take his only son on pheasant hunting trips to South Dakota, or closer to home, hunting turkeys at the Starkey Ranch in Pasco County.
The boy next door, Felix Fudge, remembers Crist taking the time to play catch, even though Fudge was four years younger.
“He’d throw the football with me,” said Fudge, 46, a St. Petersburg real estate broker. “That says a lot about somebody back then.”
Crist was president of his senior class at St. Petersburg High and played quarterback, but his playing career was cut short by a knee injury his senior year.
“He could throw the ball 65 yards,” Crist’s father recalled. “He could throw it farther than the kicker could kick it.”
His father was team doctor and took more than a passing interest in his son’s athletic achievements.
In 1974, coach Forrest Page accused Dr. Crist of using his School Board position to offer Page a job in the school system in return for giving Charlie Crist preferential treatment as a player.
“This never happened,” Dr. Crist wrote in a column in the St. Petersburg Evening Independent. Page was formally reprimanded and criticized for airing his complaints through the press.
Charlie Crist hoped to extend his football career at a small university. He chose Wake Forest, but he was a walk-on, a bench warmer who played in junior-varsity games but never took a snap in a varsity contest.
Wake’s 1975 football media guide lists Crist at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds and says his ’75 goal “is 'to make the traveling squad’ ... plans law career.”
After his sophomore year at Wake Forest, a homesick Crist gave up on football and came home.
He decided to transfer to Florida State, saying he made the decision after visiting the Tallahassee campus on a beautiful fall afternoon.
“There’s all these sorority girls out front, and I thought, 'This is college,’” Crist recalled.
Then at 23, while attending the Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Ala., Crist married one: Amanda Morrow, a member of Delta Delta Delta sorority from Palm Beach County. Crist soon filed for divorce and eight months later they parted ways. The marriage was dissolved on Feb. 15, 1980.
“I knew his first wife from college and a lot of us who were there knew that was a match made in hell,” said Brent Sembler, a St. Petersburg developer and fraternity brother of Crist’s at FSU who remains a close friend.
All three of Crist’s sisters were bridesmaids in the wedding. Crist’s younger sister, Catherine Kennedy, recalls the holiday season of 1979 as the darkest chapter in Crist’s life.
“Charlie walks with his shoulders back, and that was the one time his head was down and his shoulders were slumped,” she said. “He was torn up.”
Like Crist, Morrow did not marry again. She sells real estate in Ponte Vedra Beach, south of Jacksonville, and did not respond to messages and e-mail.
If ever a politician personified the axiom “tanned, rested and ready,” it’s Crist.
The doctor’s son rises early, swims and does sit-ups, then sets out on another 18-hour campaign day. He usually eats one meal a day, which might consist of no more than soup and crackers. Crist enjoys a cold beer or dry martini now and then.
One of his knees is weakened from football, and a bone spur in his foot forced him to quit jogging a few years ago.
He said his only other health scare came in 1999 when he had a cancerous mole removed from his back.
He is a member of First United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, and says he goes to church “as often as I can — usually two or three times a month.”
“But I pray every night,” Crist said.
To relax, Crist returns to the water of his youth, cruising Tampa Bay in the 25-foot Trophy sport fishing boat he calls Freedom.
The name is a tribute to his mentor and ex-boss, former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, whose political mantra was “less taxes, more freedom.”
Crist keeps the boat docked at his parents’ house on Snell Isle.
“Sometimes on the weekend, we’ll look out the window and the boat will be gone,” Dr. Crist said.
As the pace of Crist’s campaign has quickened, his boating jaunts have been fewer. But a friend says the boat is the closest thing Crist has to a sanctuary.
“Charlie asked me to be his finance chairman on his boat,” said Sembler, Crist’s friend for nearly three decades. “That’s the only place where I ever see Charlie unwind.”
Crist’s extended bachelorhood and his fastidiousness has led to speculation about his sexual orientation. He is the only candidate for governor of Florida who has been asked in public whether he’s gay.
“I’m not,” he told a Tiger Bay Club gathering in Tampa last year. It instantly became the shortest and most talked-about quote of the 2006 campaign.
The following day he went on a free-wheeling Tampa radio station and declared: “I love women.”
Crist’s girlfriend is Kathryn “Katie” Pemble, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Bank of St. Petersburg, who has appeared at numerous local campaign stops.
She said they have been dating for about a year and that she finds him kind, sincere, relaxed and funny.
“We probably do the same thing that most others do,” Pemble said. “When you don’t have much energy, you know, you order pizza or sushi and watch a movie. When we have a little bit more energy, we go out to dinner. We’ve been dancing.”
Pemble, 41, a University of Florida graduate, is divorced with a 7-year-old daughter. She and Crist describe their relationship as close.
“She’s a wonderful lady,” Crist said. “I think the world of her.”
Would Crist marry again?
“I haven’t thought about it,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the right time for me to make that significant a decision, under the circumstances I’m in right now. I can’t say whether it’s a distinct possibility.”
Crist’s father said he believes his son will remarry.
“He’s been engaged to one girl twice,” Dr. Crist said. “But that divorce, I think, made him a little more leery. But the right one will come along.”
At the end of the day, home for Crist is a rental apartment in downtown St. Petersburg or Tallahassee.
Entertainment is apt to be an all-news cable channel or a game on ESPN. Dinner may be from the Publix produce aisle.
The frugal Crist likes the sealed bags of precut lettuce for making salads.
“The salad in a bag deal. Isn’t that awesome? So you don’t waste stuff,” Crist said. “A couple of those bags and I’m good for half a week, you know?”
Crist doesn’t spend much time at the Bayfront Towers condo these days.
A few weeks ago, he marked his 50th birthday with a campaign fundraiser on St. Pete Beach. Two of his sisters joined him in the courtyard of the Sirata Beach Resort, along with 250 supporters.
It was a happy occasion. Wearing khakis and a green golf shirt, Crist spent two hours shaking hands with supporters and autographing pictures, standing in front of an ice sculpture of the number 50.
After a short speech, he waded into the crowd. His father was the first person to embrace him.
“He’s my best friend,” Crist said of his father. “He’s the smartest guy I know.”
Times staff writers Scott Barancik and Mary Jane Park contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.