By Michael E. Miller
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Of course, there's a pressing political reason for local Republican types to drop the antihomo rhetoric that's paid off for them so effectively in the past ten years: the possibility that Crist, the state party's banner carrier, suddenly blasts out of the closet in spectacular fashion.
It's not like they haven't had plenty of time to prepare for it. Bill Stephens, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida, has heard the rumors for years. "I've been in Tallahassee since '03," he says. "I've heard them. It's not a new rumor. It's been around for a long time."
Stephens says that although he thinks it's unlikely, he wouldn't be surprised if Crist suddenly came out of the closet. "Nothing surprises me in politics anymore." Still, Stephens, who describes himself as a "hard-line social conservative," says that Crist is politically in line with his organization, even though Crist refused to fill out the coalition's candidate questionnaire.
"I would imagine they are 85 to 90 percent on our issues," he says. "That 10 to 15 percent where they weren't there, the way I see it, he's an 85 to 90 percent friend. If we spent our time focusing on the enemy part," Stephens says, "we wouldn't get anywhere. The goal here is to make a bunch of friends there."
Making friends is what Charlie Crist does best. A charismatic and dapper 50-year-old bachelor, Crist favors pastel shirts and bright ties that offset his darkly tanned skin and distinguished shock of gray hair. He is whippet-thin with an expressive, deeply lined face that looks as if it was carved out of mahogany and is often set in a concerned frown. His tan has been the subject of jokes and speculation, but he explains that it's entirely due to his Greek ancestry. He is a toucher and a hugger at a recent campaign stump speech in Dania Beach, he methodically clapped backs, shook hands, and thoroughly embraced all the burly firefighters who were within arm's reach. When you're watching him live, he makes you think he's winking and grinning directly at you.
He was married once, in 1979, as a 23-year-old. His bride was a sorority girl named Amanda Morrow, and their marriage lasted seven months. Friends and family told the St. Petersburg Times that the marriage was the "darkest chapter in Crist's life."
He's been single ever since and has never had children or owned a home, preferring to rent condos and apartments in St. Petersburg, his hometown, and in Tallahassee. He drives a Jaguar and owns his own boat. As he came through the ranks of Republican state leadership, Crist established a reputation as a faithful party man, a tough-on-crime legislator, and an excellent prospect for higher office.
"He's the guy," says Ron Sachs, a statewide media consultant based in Tallahassee. "There are very few public officials at any level who have his charisma, movie-star good looks, and his communication skills. He makes people feel good when they watch him on TV. He's believable, he's anything but boring, he's a star. His star has risen."
At the same time, in Tallahassee and St. Petersburg, Crist's unapologetic bachelorhood has set tongues wagging. But the whispers haven't seemed to slow his rise.
He won his first election to become state education commissioner in 2000 and took a public stance against homosexuality in 2001, condemning a Florida Atlantic University stage play that featured a gay Jesus as its star.
"The sponsorship by government of this enormously disrespectful act should appall any thinking person who honors the religious beliefs of others," Crist wrote in a letter he sent to newspapers titled "Desecration 101." "For Christians, it is a personal attack, defiling the accepted image of the Son of God." He added that he thought the play's characters were "lecherous and profane."
A year and a half later, Crist was elected attorney general. And before long, he began making low-key moves for a 2006 run for governor. Meanwhile, the rumors followed him, until one day in January 2005, when someone finally said something in public.
Lee De Cesare, an outspoken 73-year-old feminist from Madeira Beach, near Tampa, went to the Tiger Bay Club forum where Crist was speaking so she could ask him whether the rumors were true. At the time, she says, she was pretty sure they were.
"I thought he was homosexual then," she says. "I had heard he dates women but doesn't kiss them."
Disgusted that no one in the media would ask Crist openly about his sexuality, she decided she would do it herself to make a point in the press and in her family.
"I took my two daughters with me, because I wanted them to see their mother asking this question as a paradigm for how they should deal with life themselves," she says.
When De Cesare was given a chance to speak in front of a few dozen people, she came right out with it: "I have heard that you were gay, sir, and I wanted to know if that was true." She added that she also wanted to know whether his divorce file was open and what his thoughts were on discrimination against gays.