Father is first for unmarried politico

If Charlie Crist becomes governor, it won't be a first lady he confides in, but dear old Dad.

Published October 20, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - If voters choose Charlie Crist as governor, Florida won't have a first lady. But it will have a first father.

Crist's best friend, football-watching buddy and financial adviser is his 74-year-old father, the original Charles J. Crist, a politician in his own right who passed on his name to his only son.

The elder Crist and his wife, Nancy, pulled up roots in their native Altoona, Pa., in the 1950s, first for medical school in Atlanta, then to settle in Florida.

He has had a family medical practice in St. Petersburg since 1961, and the couple has raised four children in the same house on Snell Isle where they have lived since 1969.

The father and son may seem uncommonly close, but the Crists are a close-knit family and the candidate, who divorced in 1980, has not remarried and has no children.

Dr. Crist also monitors his son's health and pronounces the candidate in fine physical shape. "He can run a long race," the father said.

When Charlie Crist's campaign plane developed engine trouble and had to make an emergency landing on the day before last month's primary, the first person Crist called from his cell phone was his father.

The two Charlies talk on the phone almost every day.

"We talk about general things, and politics comes up," said Dr. Crist, laughing off the idea that he advises his son. "Charlie doesn't need to ask me for political advice."

A friendly, folksy man, Dr. Crist's passions include his son's campaign, fishing and football, especially Penn State, his alma mater. Crist follows the Nittany Lions and coach Joe Paterno as closely as his son's campaign.

"They beat Northwestern," he said over a lunch of chicken walnut salad and mud pie at a favorite hangout, Harvey's 4th Street Grill in St. Pete.

Dr. Crist remembers his son being called "Arlie" as a boy, because his older sister Margaret could not make a "ch" sound.

He recalls teaching his son to drive a stick shift in his International Scout in rural Citrus County, where he once owned some undeveloped land.

But he can't put his finger on the first time his son said he would run for governor, and he's not sure it ever was said.

"It's sort of evolved," he said. "It's sort of a natural progression."

Charlie Crist was 12 when his father entered politics. Dr. Crist faced his own share of controversies as a member of the Pinellas County School Board from 1966 to 1976.

He fought the local teachers union in a bitter 1968 strike, and demanded that the district hire substitutes to keep schools open.

Not long after the strike ended, Jade Moore, the current executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, recalled sitting next to Dr. Crist at a school function.

Moore said he and Crist struck up a friendship over their common roots: the union leader, like the school board member, is from Altoona.

"They're incredibly gracious people," Moore, a fierce Democrat, said of Crist's parents, both Republicans. "That's in Charlie's gene pool. He comes by that naturally. Not that he couldn't get meaner than hell if he had to, but I've just never seen it."

As a School Board member, Dr. Crist also was a leading supporter of the Seed, a drug treatment program that was controversial in the early 1970s for its use of peer pressure, reverse psychology and other methods.

Critics accused the Seed of brainwashing its members.

News articles from that time listed Dr. Crist as a member of the Seed's advisory board, but he said that was not accurate. He said he endorsed the Seed because it was effective while other programs were not.

"I thought it was a good idea, but I never really had a working relationship with them," he said.

Bloggers who oppose Crist's candidacy have claimed, without citing evidence, that the younger Crist had a drug problem in high school because his father served on the Seed's advisory board. Such talk is untrue, he says, the work of "people with an agenda."

Dr. Crist resigned from the board in 1976 because he refused to comply with a new law requiring elected officials to disclose their personal finances for the first time.

He said Florida was going through a medical malpractice insurance crisis at the time, "and the last thing I wanted to do was expose all that."

Dr. Crist can recall setting foot in the Governor's Mansion only once, as a tourist, not long after his son was elected to the state Senate in 1992.

"We went up for a long weekend and took the tour," he said.

If his son wins next month, the days of the Crists seeing the capital as wide-eyed tourists will be over forever.

Times researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet is at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.