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Crist: a shrewd leader who favors a pragmatic style

Published October 22, 2006

[Times photo: Bob Croslin]
Charlie Crist.

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Charlie Crist's leadership style can best be described as a shrewdly timed brand of populism.

The Republican nominee for governor knows timing is critical in politics. He's often at his populist best when the risk of political damage appears least.

In that sense, Crist is the opposite of Gov. Jeb Bush, who has a track record of pursuing strong policy positions even when they do him no good politically.

For Crist, it is a trait that draws anger from critics, who call him a mere opportunist, and admiration from supporters, who see a rare instinct for finding the acceptable middle.

Perhaps the best example of the choreographed nature of Crist's leadership is in the Terri Schiavo end-of-life case.

As attorney general, Crist disagreed with fellow Republicans who passed a bill to force judges to keep Schiavo alive, but he kept quiet throughout the furor.

He believed the decision should be left to families, not politicians, but he held his tongue. Why?

"That's a good question," Crist said.

Though he was on the prevailing side of public opinion, Crist said he refused to clash with Bush, who led the fight for state intervention in the Schiavo case.

"I respect my leader, and I wasn't the leader at the time," Crist said. "But I think I spoke loudly. Sometimes silence can be deafening."

Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said Crist, as the chief legal officer of the state, had a duty that transcended politics: to question a flawed law that was soon after struck down by the Florida Supreme Court.

"He was the attorney general, and said nothing," Gelber said. "The idea that we didn't hear from him when Republicans were passing a patently unconstitutional bill is amazing."

Willing to break with the GOP

Time and again, Crist has shown himself to be willing to break away from his party's orthodoxy, each time seeking to expand his natural base.

The list of examples keeps growing.

In the Republican primary, Crist supported the status quo on abortion, the class size amendment and civil unions between gay couples - positions not considered popular with the party's conservative base.

Now, as he seeks African-American votes in the general election, Crist favors automatic restoration of civil rights for ex-felons. He never proposed that in the six years on the Cabinet, so Democrats have accused him of flip-flopping for political expediency.

"It's not a flip-flop," Crist says. "It's a natural evolution."

His "evolution" came not in a speech or political ad, but in response to questions by newspaper editorial boards - long-standing supporters of civil rights for former felons.

'I think his motives are good'

As Florida's first elected Republican attorney general, Crist opposed a record phone rate increase, but only after its passage by the 2003 Legislature was assured.

Crist wrote legislative leaders a carefully worded letter on April 28, 2003, warning that he would file a lawsuit if rates went up. But he did not oppose the bill.

"In retrospect, you probably have to pick your fights," said consumer advocate Mike Twomey. "I don't think he had much chance of overturning that, considering the strength of the telephone companies in the Legislature."

Twomey said Crist has been an effective voice for consumers in utility cases, and he praises Crist for a key personnel decision.

Crist lured Jack Shreve out of retirement to be his senior general counsel on utility issues. Shreve, 74, a Democrat, had retired in 2003 after a quarter century of battling utilities.

On Shreve's advice, Crist was instrumental in securing rate freezes from two electric companies, Progress Energy and Florida Power & Light.

In another case, Crist got AT&T to provide free prepaid phone cards after it erroneously overbilled Florida customers.

"I think his motives are good," Shreve said of Crist.

Where the politics are less clear, Crist is sometimes hard to find.

Opponents of slot machines in Broward County wanted Crist to be their advocate in a lawsuit last year demanding stricter state regulation of the machines.

But Crist, who has broad support in Broward, where voters approved slots, stayed away.

Two years ago, Crist could have polished his populist image by backing a popular ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage by $1, to $6.15 an hour.

Major business groups opposed it.

Brian Kettenring of ACORN, a workers' advocacy group and key organizer in the minimum wage campaign in Florida, recalled meeting Crist for the first time and asking for his support.

"He didn't say anything, as I recall," Kettenring said.

Indeed, Crist did not take a stand on the minimum wage, and it was approved by voters with 71 percent of the vote.

But as a board member of the business-promotion group Enterprise Florida, Crist joined in a unanimous vote in a teleconference on Aug. 19, 2004, opposing a minimum wage hike.

"I don't think I had a problem with it," Crist says now.

Opposing groups support him

Crist has adroitly managed to attract political support from interest groups that are often hostile to each other in the political arena. The most notable example is doctors and trial lawyers, bitter rivals in the long-running fight over medical malpractice lawsuits.

Speaking to a doctors' convention in Kissimmee, Crist let it be known that he's the son of a doctor. But he picked a trial lawyer, Rep. Jeff Kottkamp, R-Cape Coral, as his running mate .

Doctors and lawyers have both donated heavily to Crist's campaign - no doubt in part because polls show he's favored to win.

Eventually, Crist may have to agree with one side or the other in a political dispute.

"He seems to be able to attract groups that are normally opposed," said Rick McAllister, president and CEO of the Florida Retail Federation.

"That leadership is going to be very important, because I think it's going to be more important to work with natural adversaries to find solutions," he said.

Associates say Crist approaches issues with caution and patience, relying on his staff to gather the facts needed to make a decision.

"The good news about Charlie is that he doesn't always have an opinion at the table," said Robin Safley, his chief of staff for two years at the Department of Education. "It doesn't have to be 'my way or the highway.' "

Safley said that while Jeb Bush is a "hands-on manager," Crist is more of a manager of people.

Crist himself acknowledges he's not detail-oriented. That's why he likes having the meticulous George LeMieux around as his chief of staff.

'It's the will of the people'

A self-proclaimed "old quarterback," Crist says he learned about leadership in the football huddle at St. Petersburg High. He defines it as inspiring others to do more.

When he became attorney general, he inherited a work force of more than 1,000 lawyers and bureaucrats. Many were Democrats who expected to be fired by the incoming Republican.

But Crist said he cared about performance, not party affiliation, and nearly all of the employees in the office are still there.

One of the lawyers Crist asked to stay was Pat Gleason, an expert on open government and public records law.

"I haven't regretted it one bit," Gleason said.

Early on, Gleason remembers that Crist had to make a critical ruling.

The question was whether a new constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds vote of both houses on public records exemptions applied only to new exemptions, as the Legislature concluded, or to re-enactment of thousands of existing ones.

Gleason said that without hesitation, Crist took the stronger open-records position, that the two-thirds vote applied to all open records exemption bills.

"I just remember it so clearly," Gleason said. "He said, 'It's the will of the people, of course it applies.' The right thing to do was all that mattered."

[Last modified October 22, 2006, 05:17:49]

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