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Politics

Beyond friendship

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published June 2, 2007


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TEL AVIV - For Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, going to Israel is about building friendships with a vital U.S. ally, an essential stepping stone for any ambitious American politician.

But when the mission ends Sunday, the most important friendship is likely to be the one between the Republican gover nor and Democrat Robert Wexler, a Palm Beach County congressman who played a key behind-the-scenes role in orchestrating the trip, advising on some of the smallest details.

Their friendship, while genuine, also furthers the political aims of both men.

For Wexler, Crist provides a key ally, which paid off when the governor approved paper-trail voting machines, a cause that Wexler has championed since 2001.

For Crist, Wexler provides a way to expand his base among Florida's sizeable Jewish population, which is largely in South Florida and overwhelmingly Democratic.

The alliance speaks volumes about Crist, 50, who rejects hyper-partisanship and has embraced Democrats since taking office in January.

"His instincts are to include people, " Wexler, 46, said of Crist, "and he's actually humble enough to listen, which is a rare quality in a politician."

At an outdoor reception on the lawn of the U.S. ambassador's residence in Jerusalem, Crist returned the compliment.

"He is a mensch, a true gentleman, and a dear friend, " Crist said.

* * *

There are plenty of Republicans in the 40-member Florida delegation in Israel, but Crist and Wexler have frequently been at each other's side this week.

They led the group Friday on a solemn two-hour tour of Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem museum that documents the history of the Holocaust. Together they stoked the eternal flame that is a symbol of both the victims of the Holocaust and the heroes who gave their lives to save others.

They toured the old city of Jerusalem together and paused to say a prayer at the Western Wall.

At a "networking" dinner, Crist unwound not by hobnobbing with businessmen but by listening to Wexler tell one hilarious story after another - about past campaigns, political lessons learned and his many colorful constituents.

On the last leg of the trip Sunday, at Wexler's coaxing, they will fly to Amman to meet Jordan's King Abdullah II, one of the Middle East's moderate Arab political voices.

To Wexler, an 11-year veteran of Capitol Hill, one of the larger meanings of Crist's trip to Israel is obvious.

"If there's a list of 10 Republicans who could be on a national ticket in the next 20 years, he's on that list, " Wexler said of Crist.

* * *

On the surface, it may not look like a logical alliance. Crist is reserved while Wexler is animated.

Crist by nature is a listener, and Wexler is a born storyteller with a Catskills comedian's ability to deliver a punch line.

Crist is ill at ease talking about faith or religion, while Wexler is an observant Jew who said his wife wouldn't marry him unless he went to Israel first. He has traveled there "about 20 times" since, he said.

"It's beyond friendship, " Crist said. "The religious context he brings is very meaningful and helpful to me, candidly. And you know Robert - he's such a good-natured person."

They spent four years together in the state Senate in the mid-'90s, before Wexler left in 1996 to represent one of the state's most liberal Congressional districts.

Both saw the political and publicity value of pushing crime as an issue.

Crist was "Chain Gang Charlie, " seeking to put prison inmates to work in highly visible jobs, and helped pass a law stopping early release of inmates.

Wexler's advocacy of chemical castration for rapists in Florida brought him national exposure, too.

When President Clinton was in the throes of impeachment in 1998, one of his staunchest defenders was Wexler. Crist, campaigning for the U.S. Senate that year, at one point suggested Clinton resign.

In last year's race for governor, Crist ran a TV ad late in the campaign, attacking Democratic rival Jim Davis for meeting with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2002.

Crist insists he has no regrets about the ad, even though the trip was government-approved and Wexler, whose has a large Jewish constituency, has also met with Arafat.

"I spoke to Charlie about it the ad at the time, and I was honest, " Wexler said. "I also understand that a campaign is a campaign."

Perhaps the most telling example of the Crist-Wexler alliance is that at least two Democratic political clubs in the giant condominium complexes in Wexler's district wanted to invite Crist as a guest speaker. But club leaders first sought Wexler's approval, which he readily gave.

"I would be honored, frankly, " Crist said. "I want to be the governor of all of the people."

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

[Last modified June 2, 2007, 01:41:47]


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