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Crist: Divergent counsel

Published October 15, 2006

Charlie Crist admires Jack Kemp, the quarterback-turned-politician for whom entrepreneurship was a byword.

His campaign treasurer and fraternity brother is Brent Sembler, a Pinellas County developer.

Running mate Jeff Kottkamp is a lawyer at Morgan & Morgan, a personal injury firm known for giving insurance carriers the iron glove treatment.

His "good friend" is a Fort Myers commercial real estate broker whose friendship was fueled by a $750,000 contribution to Crist's campaign.

He even gets business tips from Hollywood legend Burt Reynolds.

When it comes to economic advice, Crist, the Republican would-be heir to Gov. Jeb Bush, has no single Greenspan-like guru whispering in his ear. Yet the 50-year-old St. Petersburg native has left few constituencies uncovered.

When Crist decided to run for governor, his staffers checked into the Tallahassee office of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. A multihour brainstorming session ensued, covering property taxes, insurance and affordable housing.

Chamber vice president Mark Wilson considers Bush a "rock star" of the business world. When it came to Crist, Wilson felt secure the candidate's sympathies were not with labor unions or other groups that "try to kill jobs."

"So long as Charlie Crist continues to want to be like Jeb Bush our job is to help Charlie continue Jeb's legacy," Wilson said.

Bush's legacy is far from secure among the legal profession, a group that seems to find the GOP more congenial with Crist as its standard bearer.

Crist is a lawyer by training and is finishing his term as attorney general. He disarmed potential opposition by choosing Kottkamp, a trial attorney, as his lieutenant governor.

Crist's top campaign adviser is chief of staff George LeMieux, an Orlando attorney. The pair's working relationship predates the campaign: LeMieux was deputy attorney general under Crist.

Crist concedes Bush's support for overturning joint and several liability rules was sound. (It's a principle that requires you to pay full damages though you might be only partly to blame).

But he seems lukewarm about further curbing the ability to sue.

Much of the lawyerly agenda conforms to Crist's populist message honed as attorney general the past four years. He even talks rapprochement between doctors and lawyers.

"We have two very honorable professions engaged in an unnecessary food fight," Crist says of a tiff caused mostly by medical malpractice lawsuits.

A $750,000 contribution to a Crist-related group has earned Greg Eagle, a Fort Myers' commercial real estate broker, face time with the candidate. Sembler, son of Reagan Republican and former ambassador Mel Sembler, also has Crist's ear. The longtime friends were frat brothers at Florida State University. Stuart Lasher, founder of Lifestyle Fitness Centers, a chain of local health clubs, is a Crist campaign fixture.

Crist praises Bush for courting bio-science companies, an effort that landed Scripps Research Institute for West Palm Beach. But for Crist, Scripps is necessary but not sufficient. The state needs other industries. Enter another figure eager to dispense advice: Reynolds, star of such films as Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance.

Crist says Reynolds expressed frustration Florida wasn't a prime movie location, losing to the likes of Louisiana.

Crist was all ears when he heard about the hundreds of millions at stake. Budget willing, Crist plans to crank up subsidies for film companies beyond the current $20-million per year.

Crist has made himself out to be a something-for-everybody candidate. But he says he's careful not to confuse an open mind with an open wallet. People can give him money and advice. But it won't earn them any favors he wasn't previously prepared to give.

"I take the view that they adopt my agenda, I don't adopt theirs," Crist said.

[Last modified October 14, 2006, 23:18:37]

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