In 2002, he became Florida's attorney general and was soon sucked into the drama of Terri Schiavo, who had been left in a vegetative state after a heart attack. While conservatives bellowed for her right to life, Crist declined to intervene, leaving it to the courts to decide whether her feeding tube should be removed. Crist's inaction was one of the greatest controversies of his tenure.

At the time, he was overly concerned with the next office, remembers Jackie Dowd, a tall, gray-haired lawyer who worked under Crist. "I never saw an attorney," she says. "I saw a guy running for governor." (Crist announced his run May 8, 2005.)

Dowd recalls the exact moment she came to that realization. It was a Monday morning in early 2003 after she'd trudged into a teleconference with Crist. She updated him on a lengthy investigation involving Lou Pearlman, the mastermind behind the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync. Pearlman, she said, had scammed aspiring models by charging them thousands of dollars to upload their pictures to an unknown website. Dowd had more leads, she told Crist, but he expressed no interest. "I don't know why I knew it, but I just did," she says. "The case was dead."

Crist (right) played quarterback for the St. Pete High Green Devils.
St. Petersburg High
Crist (right) played quarterback for the St. Pete High Green Devils.
Crist; his wife, Carole; and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz greet fans at a rally in Hollywood.
Terrence McCoy
Crist; his wife, Carole; and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz greet fans at a rally in Hollywood.

Later, dozens of Pearlman's victims involved in a separate Ponzi scheme sued Crist and the state for negligence in investigating the con man, whose political and business ties spanned Florida. The lawsuit alleged Pearlman had pumped more than $11,000 into Crist's gubernatorial campaign, and the then-attorney general had flown in Pearlman's private jets and sat in his sporting skyboxes. The U.S. District Court in Tampa dismissed the complaint, citing the state's sovereign immunity.

Not even those allegations could slow Crist's ascent. Then came the rumors he was a closeted homosexual, a potentially serious issue for a Republican in Florida. It threatened to destroy him in the weeks before the 2006 gubernatorial election.

Jason Wetherington, a 21-year-old Republican staffer, had told several friends at separate social functions that August that he'd had sex with Crist. Wetherington had also told friends that another man, Bruce Carlton Jordan, had slept with Crist.

These stories — never corroborated but widely discussed on blogs, as well as in the St. Petersburg Times, in the New York Times, and on NBC — deeply wounded Crist's family. "I always thought it was his womanizing that would get him in trouble," Crist Sr. muses, saying he was impressed how well his son stamped out the ballooning intrigue. Charlie called the stories "ridiculous" and "completely false" and just kept on smiling. It worked. In 2006, voters deposited him in the governor's mansion.

Immediately, his approval ratings soared. Unlike his successor, Rick Scott, Crist caused little controversy. He backed teachers and cops and was the first Republican governor to accept an invitation to the state's NAACP conference.

In 2008, he married divorcée Carole Rome. He was pro-choice, then pro-life, and then pro-choice again. "I'm deeply committed to the Everglades ecosystem," he said. "I am deeply committed to persons with disabilities," he said a few months later. "I am deeply concerned... about our citizens and businesses."

He anointed himself the "happy warrior" and the "people's governor." But even then, there were traces of his political demise.

Extreme conservatives hated Crist for his moderation. First, he appointed centrists Jorge Labarga and James Perry to the state Supreme Court. Next, he accepted $13.3 billion in federal stimulus. And then there was The Hug. More a quickie man-bump than a full embrace, Crist clasped Barack Obama in February 2009 after he accepted the federal bailout, and Republicans, quite simply, lost their minds.

The governor eventually recognized the true might of the Tea Party, but it was much too late. When he announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate in May 2009, he never saw Marco Rubio coming.


At dusk, a 20-seat commercial plane bound for Tampa rumbles to life on a Tallahassee tarmac. Mike Fasano, a Republican state senator from Tampa, peers out the window, wondering what's taking so long. The flight is an hour late for takeoff. Ordinarily they'd already be circling Tampa.

But this isn't an ordinary flight.

It is 2010, and then-Gov. Charlie Crist, the last passenger, ducks aboard. He takes a seat near Fasano, and over the engine's rattle, the two angular, white-haired men begin to talk. Crist says he's considering vetoing a bill that would eliminate teacher tenure. Fasano supports the measure and cautions Crist. "If you veto this bill," he warns, "you'll have to switch parties."

Days later, Crist issued the veto. But the brief discussion was emblematic of the growing schism between the governor and Republicans. "Charlie's a nice guy," Fasano says. "His decisions were based on what he truly believed in."

At first, following his marriage to Carole Rome and his bipartisan support as governor, Crist's campaign had the look of a juggernaut. His presumptive predecessor, whom Crist had tapped to keep the Senate seat warm, was longtime aide George LeMieux. And he led former state House speaker Marco Rubio in the Republican primary by 30 points.

Then something unusual happened. Crist lost his touch. This was recessionary America, and he failed to channel its passions and vitriol. He shrank before conservatives. "My advisers said, 'They're angry,' " Crist recalls. " 'You need to be angry too.' But I'm not an angry guy."

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5 comments
Brandon Yen
Brandon Yen

I live in fl. and I would welcome Charlie Crist back as a governor instead of Rick Scott.

harveycop
harveycop

I like Charlie and want him back in Tallahassee

FatHand
FatHand

He probably didn't reach his full potential as a QB because, at least according to the picture accompanying this article, he smoked hookah on the sidelines of his football games.

FatHand
FatHand

I agree that obviously Crist would be better than Rick Scott. But what Florida's Dems need to ask themselves is, in a situation where you have an incredibly unpopular and (by all appearances) beatable incumbant Republican, are you going to use that opportunity to nominate somebody that has spent his entire political career as a Republican (until he was about to lose a primary)?

mcytmaccracker
mcytmaccracker

@FatHand as an independent, I would vote for Scott before Charlie. At least he's honest about his slimy ness.

 
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