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Politics

In Crist's camp, he was 'the maestro'

Before the election, few knew who George LeMieux was. Now, he's a major player in Florida politics with his pick of career paths.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published November 12, 2006


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photo
[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
George LeMieux, chief of staff for Charlie Crist's campaign.

At their election night victory party in the bar of a St. Petersburg hotel, Charlie Crist campaign workers showed up in black T-shirts that read: "Ask George LeMieux."

The quotation came straight from one of the most famous political names in America - Karl Rove. It was the White House political guru's curt answer to the question of why Crist didn't appear at an election eve rally with President Bush in Pensacola.

Few things better illustrate the arrival of an important political strategist than his willingness, and his standing, to tick off Karl Rove.

Now, the soft-spoken lawyer Crist called "the maestro" of a victorious campaign for governor is in position to have the career of his choice. At 37, LeMieux can be rich or powerful. Maybe both.

After guiding Crist's campaign for the past 18 months, LeMieux is serving as executive director of the governor-elect's transition team that has seven weeks to prepare for Crist to take office on Jan. 2.

Beyond that, LeMieux has at least three options:

- He could be chief of staff to a governor who's likely to delegate broad authority to his staff.

- He could become a lobbyist and command a huge salary in exchange for his close relationship with the new governor, though he signed a code of ethics barring him from lobbying any agency that he deals with during the transition.

- He could return to practicing law and take the reins of the Republican Party, which would make him a powerful player in presidential politics in 2008.

"My comment on that would be premature," LeMieux said of his plans.

Those are the rewards for a friendship that began more than a decade ago when Crist was a state senator from St. Petersburg and LeMieux was trying to expand the Republican reach in heavily Democratic Broward County.

"He was president of his Young Republicans club, and I would come and speak as a state senator," Crist said. "That's how it began, probably in '95 or '96."

Low-key, meticulous about details and possessed with a sense of humor, LeMieux has always loved politics.

In 1998, things looked promising for Republicans, with Jeb Bush atop the ticket.

So LeMieux pronounced la-MYOO, a young lawyer in Fort Lauderdale, decided to run for the state House against three-term Democratic incumbent Tracy Stafford, while Crist took aim at U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.

"We knocked on doors for each other," Crist said.

LeMieux went to more than 10,000 doors in a district drawn to protect a Democrat. He campaigned for better health insurance, leaner bureaucracy and smaller class sizes.

"I remember sitting in classrooms in Broward County with 40 kids in them," he said.

He also backed a $100 limit on the amount of money out-of-state companies could give to Florida candidates as a way of allowing working people to have a bigger impact in the system.

Both men lost, but a bond was formed. For LeMieux, running for office and losing was a good career move.

"He's smart, he's funny, he's honest and he's hard-working," Crist said. "I have great trust and confidence in his abilities."

By the time Crist ran for attorney general in 2002, LeMieux was in charge of the Broward Republican Party.

This time Crist won, and he asked LeMieux to leave his job at the firm of Gunster Yoakley & Stewart to be chief of staff in the attorney general's office.

"He's been the senior partner and I've been the junior partner," LeMieux said. "We make decisions together."

Still, few people knew who he was last January, when Crist named LeMieux to be chief of staff for his campaign for governor. Snickering could be heard among supporters of Republican rival Tom Gallagher.

After all, Gallagher's campaign manager had run the Bush-Cheney effort in Florida in 2004 and LeMieux had never run a statewide campaign.

But Crist defeated Gallagher in a 32-point blowout to win the GOP nomination, and suddenly LeMieux had lots of admirers.

His job was to make sure the campaign ran well. If Crist lingered too long at events, LeMieux would shout, "General, time to go."

As campaign chief of staff, LeMieux hired staff members, shaped Crist's centrist message and made key strategic moves. It was he who demanded lecterns for the second TV debate with Democratic opponent Jim Davis instead of a conference table, and he who decided Crist would not accompany President Bush on the day before the election.

LeMieux guided Crist in his choice of Jeff Kottkamp as a running mate, and acted as a damage control expert for Crist when a woman's paternity claim surfaced in late August.

He decided when to rest Crist and when to turn up the heat on Davis.

A Catholic and the son of a home builder, LeMieux was raised in Broward County, a vast suburban landscape of strip malls and housing subdivisions. "God's country," LeMieux calls it.

At his 10-year reunion at Coral Springs High School in 1997, he met his wife, Meike, even though they did not date as teenagers.

They have two children, a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old, and for much of the past 18 months, LeMieux has not been home.

"We call them 'periods of sacrifice,' " Meike LeMieux said, "and we just went through one."

She said her husband sent her 18 roses Thursday - one for each month he was on the road.

"When he has a goal in mind, he's extremely focused," Meike LeMieux said. "He maps the road out, and there's very little chance he won't succeed."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

[Last modified November 12, 2006, 05:14:19]


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