We hear that Charlie Crist is gay.
There's no proof that he is. In fact, Crist, the Republican candidate for governor and the current state attorney general, has repeatedly denied it.
But professional muckrakers have burned fistfuls of campaign money trying to prove it. His political opponents have tried to score points by alluding to it. And it seems that everyone who follows politics in Florida discusses it more or less openly. The rumors have multiplied and overgrown his political career like kudzu, and though they haven't slowed Charlie Crist's rise to power, they have shaped it every step of the way.
But Florida politicians and the media who cover them have avoided making Charlie Crist's sexuality a story. Except for rare moments, the rumors that so frequently get mentioned in political company stay out of the public record.
For several weeks, for example, a man who has known Crist for 25 years and for much of that time worked with him in the Republican Party has been saying publicly that Crist is not a heterosexual.
Max Linn, the Reform Party candidate for governor, says that in both 1984 and 1998, he and Crist discussed Crist's sexual orientation. (Linn says Crist is bisexual.)
Not a word about Linn's numerous radio pronouncements has shown up in the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel or the Palm Beach Post.
Attend any Florida political event, however, and in the audience chatter before a candidate takes to a microphone, you'll hear plenty about Crist's sexual orientation.
On the sidelines of a recent Broward County Republican Executive Committee meeting, a former member of Crist's fraternity at Florida State University shares his opinion in a whisper. "It's a rumor that everyone has heard," he says. "But if it is true, it's buried so deep. I've seen him out with his girlfriend at parties."
In the dispirited crowd at the Wyndham Grand Bay Hotel that's milling around Republican Tom Gallagher after his loss to Crist in the primary, people have to raise their voices over the recording of "Takin' Care of Business" blasting from the speakers to hear one another. At a table in the middle of the room, Don Jacobson, a Palm Beach lawyer who claims to be an Independent, is nursing a drink. Asked how the party will pull together to place a Republican successor to Jeb Bush in the governor's mansion, Jacobson doesn't mince words.
"Well, first Crist needs to admit that he's gay," he says matter-of-factly.
Nearby, Tony Samper, Tom Gallagher's brother-in-law and a lieutenant with the State Fire Marshal's office, is happy to discuss juicy tidbits of gossip about Crist's supposed male lovers off the record. "You see what comes out in the next few weeks," he whispers conspiratorially.
And though they won't print a word about the rumors, members of Florida's press corps have heard every one.
"Why don't you guys ever write that Charlie Crist is gay?" New Times recently asked an elevator full of political reporters covering the governor's race. After a short silence, they all breathed a collective sigh.
"Do you have any proof?" one of them asked, clearly not for the first time.
"There you go," she said.
"We've been dealing with that rumor for years," another reporter explained. "It's still unsubstantiated."
And so it goes. The reporters head back to their newsrooms, and there won't be anything about the whispers in your morning newspaper the next day.
It seems as though nothing short of the revelations of a tell-all lover or a lurid photograph will propel Crist's reputation as a closet queer into the news. In their absence, one of the most talked about matters of the gubernatorial campaign remains hush-hush.
Charlie Crist says he isn't gay. That's all you need to know.
If Charlie Crist were gay, says Sid Dinerstein, chair of the Palm Beach Republican Committee, it wouldn't matter. Republicans don't hate gays, he says. They never have.
"What the Dems assume is that all Republicans march in lockstep and all drink the same Kool-Aid," Dinerstein says. "They assume that when there's any Republican with an appearance of a lifestyle or a voting record that is too culturally soft, they'll throw the guy overboard. But Republicans hear all the same rumors as everybody else, and being quite sophisticated, they say, here's a candidate, Gallagher, Crist, and here are a hundred things about their person: personal things, position on taxes... Now, who do I want to vote for?"
That's right, the party that for years has given the impression that it would rather see young American men die in battle than marry each other is now more gay-friendly than a Wilton Manors flower shop.
"It's a new day in Broward County," says Shane Strum, chair of the Broward Republican Executive Committee. "I think the message has changed. You're seeing different people with different philosophies. People were used to the George Bush/Karl Rove tactics of appealing to the Christian Coalition. But now, it's a very large, diverse, big tent."
Yes, Republicans now love gays, and never mind the recent histrionics about gay marriage, gay adoption, and those nasty things about homosexuality spouted by Pennsylvania's arch-heterosexual Republican Sen. Rick Santorum.
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.
De Cesare says the deafening silence after her question suggested that the other people in the room were "shocked and appalled." After a beat, Crist answered, "I'm not, the records are open, and we shouldn't discriminate against anyone." The audience burst into applause.
De Cesare remains unapologetic. "I thought it was a fair question to ask Mr. Crist," she says. "The Republicans have made such hay out of sexual orientation and family values. If they didn't mention it, it would be another thing. But they've gone beyond mentioning it; they've made it a platform."
Crist moved quickly after De Cesare's question to head off other towel snaps at his sexuality. The following Monday, the candidate called in to Dave McKay's show at WQYK-FM (99.5), a country radio station in Tampa and friendly territory.
"Are you a homo?" asked McKay, an enthusiastic Crist booster.
"No, man. No. I love women," Crist replied. "I mean, they're wonderful."
"I've seen you with some great-looking women," McKay said. "I've heard some women even complain that you're a womanizer."
"I wouldn't say I'm a womanizer," Crist countered hurriedly. "That's probably going too far."
Calling McKay seemed to pay off: Florida's press corps considered the matter settled.
That spring, Tom Gallagher, Florida's chief financial officer, announced that he would make his third attempt at the Republican nomination for governor. After filing his paperwork, he stood on the steps of the Capitol and told reporters that one of his platform's planks was a strong stance against gay marriage.
"As governor, I will defend the values that keep our families strong," he said, standing with his wife and young son. "There's nothing better than having a wife and child who support you and work with you and that you can go home to and relax with and enjoy."
From the start, his wife and child were a constant theme in Gallagher's campaign, used without much subtlety to remind fellow Republicans that Crist has no wife or children of his own to parade.
It's common for a Republican candidate to appeal to the party's most conservative voters before a primary, and Gallagher, whose credentials suggested that he was actually from the moderate wing of the GOP, predictably went to the right as September 5 approached. But in a way that was too obvious to miss, the Gallagher campaign relentlessly hammered on themes of gay marriage, gay civil unions, and family, family, family not just to appeal to conservatives but to hint that Crist was light in the loafers.
And yet, the more Gallagher seemed desperate to show voters that his opponent was wifeless, childless, and soft on gay issues, the more Crist pulled away in the polls. Gallagher clearly hadn't got the memo: Republicans are willing to let a closeted Charlie Crist win.
As the campaign continued, a woman began appearing with Crist at public events and campaign stops. Kathryn "Katie" Pemble, an officer at the Bank of St. Petersburg, acknowledged to reporters that she and Crist were "dating" in January 2006. She quickly became a fixture of Crist's campaign, eventually making cameos in several crucial pre-primary newspaper biographies of Crist.
Despite being accompanied on the campaign trail by a brand-new girlfriend, Crist still couldn't shake the whispers. Internet scribblers labeled Pemble a "prop." And in April, a website called "SorryCharlie.com" appeared. It hosted cartoons depicting Crist coming out of a closet and calling him a "liberal superstar." Its creators remain anonymous.
The Tampa Tribune, one of only two newspapers to report on the website, called it a "sloppily produced, illiterate, dirty tricks Web site put together by cowards who lack the spine to attach their names to a not-too-thinly veiled campaign to suggest Crist is gay."
Soon, the site disappeared, and no trace of it or its videos can be found online today.
It was July when Crist faced the gay question head-on again, this time as a guest on Jim DeFede's radio talk show on WINZ-AM (940). When DeFede hit him with the question, Crist was prepared.
"The point is, I'm not. There's the answer. How do you like it?" Crist said. "Not that there's anything wrong with that, as they say on Seinfeld. But I just happen not to be."
Along with scoring cool points with the gay-friendly set for working in the Seinfeld reference, Crist also said that he was "fine" with civil unions for gay couples and that he hadn't "reached a conclusion" on whether gay adoptions should be allowed in Florida, both heretical departures from the Republican party line.
Naturally, Gallagher pounced. In early August, his team organized a conference call for Florida conservative Christian leaders, telling them that "it's become very clear that there's only one candidate who can be trusted to continue Gov. Bush's social conservative agenda."
Doubts about Crist from the hard right started coming faster and with more heat. And not all of it was coming from Gallagher's camp.
"The people who were in the know knew where the whispers were coming from," says Strum, chair of the Broward GOP. "They didn't come from any particular candidate."
John Stemberger, head of the Florida Family Policy Council, which spearheaded the movement for a state gay marriage ban, told listeners on the conference call that Crist was suspect when it came to gay issues.
"The fact that the front-runner in the Florida Republican primary is an unapologetic advocate for gay rights is and should be big news," Stemberger told the assembled conservatives.
Soon afterward, in an article titled "Conservatives Worried About Crist," Rep. Dennis Baxley, a member of Gallagher's "family policy council," reminded voters of Crist's gay-friendliness. "He's been very bold... in moving toward things like gay rights," he told the Lakeland Ledger.
In debates, Gallagher bore in on Crist, sensing a weakness. "What's the difference between a civil union and a same-sex marriage?" he asked Crist in one televised debate. But Crist parried deftly and with a smile. "I guess I have a little more of a 'live and let live' attitude than my opponent does" was one of his responses.
One political reporter who covered the Gallagher campaign told New Times that behind the scenes, Gallagher's staff was trying desperately to capitalize on the gay rumor without looking bigoted. Alberto Martinez, Gallagher's spokesman, held an off-the-record briefing with the media in the last week before the primary in which he stressed that Gallagher's sudden emphasis on gay issues was not to be construed as "gay bashing."
With only days to go before the vote, Gallagher demanded that Crist reject the endorsement of the gay weekly newspaper Watermark Online, which serves Central Florida. Tom Dyer, publisher of Watermark, had written a candidate guide for the paper's August 24 issue that called Crist a "hands-down favorite" for gay voters. "While he unsurprisingly dislikes gay marriage, Crist supports civil unions for same-sex couples," Dyer wrote. "He's charming, decisive and moderate."
"You won't see me get that endorsement," Gallagher told reporters. But Crist managed once again to make Gallagher look like a bully: "I don't reject support," he said. "I'm in the business of trying to get support. You know, I'm not trying to be discriminating."
By the eve of the primary, the gay mudslinging was so obvious that Fox News commentator Carl Cameron described it to his television audience the night before the polls opened, saying: "Crist complains that a whisper campaign that he's gay is being orchestrated by the Gallagher camp. He tries to ignore it, focusing on other issues."
Before the campaign, even Crist's friends wondered if questions about his sexual orientation would sink him. "Conventional wisdom would have said that Charlie would have lost," an acquaintance who attended his fraternity told New Times.
Instead, Gallagher's thinly veiled attacks completely backfired. On September 5, Crist picked up moderate Republicans all over the state, burying Gallagher and his innuendoes under a landslide victory.
Political strategists agree that Crist triumphed over the rumor campaign for a couple of reasons. It didn't hurt, for example, that there was an 11th-hour revelation that Crist had been accused of fathering an illegitimate child in 1988. Rebecca O'Dell Townsend, a St. Petersburg lawyer, told reporters the week before the primary that after she and Crist spent the night together at his St. Petersburg apartment two decades ago, she became pregnant.
Crist denied that he was the father, saying in one court document that although he'd gone home with Townsend, he had "never consummated the act necessary for parenthood."
The story, a last-ditch effort to smear Crist from the Gallagher camp, disappeared nearly as quickly as it surfaced, but not before it cast doubt on the rumors of Crist's homosexuality and made the Gallagher supporters look petty and malicious.
But there was another, more important, reason that Gallagher's innuendo campaign didn't work: Gallagher was hardly the right person to be casting doubts about another man's family values.
With a moderate political record and a long reputation as a Tallahassee ladies' man, Gallagher was already having a hard time fitting the image of a conservative champion when uncomfortable information from his divorce records became public this past June. In an embarrassing emergency conference call with reporters, Gallagher admitted that he had smoked marijuana and had once had a long-term affair with a legislative aide while he was a state representative. Lamely, he claimed that his born-again Christian faith made his transgressions a thing of the past. But his conversion to right-wing conservatism didn't fool anybody, least of all the church-goers and gay-bashers his campaign sought out.
"In this campaign, he became a little uncharacteristically culturally conservative," says Dinerstein, the Palm Beach County party chairman. "I went to one of my Christian Right friends during the primary and asked him about Tom Gallagher's positions, which had become quite what I call Christian Right. And this fellow said to me, 'We don't believe them. '"
One Tallahassee political insider put it plainly: "I think that running a campaign against Charlie Crist and resorting to innuendo about a rumor that is oft-repeated but never confirmed has a kind of desperation to it, a very thin veneer to it that is easily seen. Here's the irony: Anybody who tries to beat up Charlie Crist or anybody else with the mantle of family values, it's going to backlash against them, as it did with Tom Gallagher. It backfired on Tom Gallagher to even allude to it."
Some of Gallagher's supporters think he failed not because he was too hard on Crist but because he wasn't hard enough. Elaine Miceli-Vasquez, a Broward County Republican who managed Broward County's Gallagher campaign, says many frustrated Gallagher supporters wished he had said more. But Miceli-Vasquez, like most Gallagher supporters, won't tell a reporter exactly what their candidate should have said more about.
"I was not a person who felt that Tom should be quiet," Miceli-Vasquez says. "Had I been his campaign manager, I would've fought for him harder. His negative so-called advertising was only on issues."
Off the record, some Gallagher supporters say they wish Gallagher had just come out and said that Crist is gay.
"He's just wouldn't go there," one source close to the campaign says. "It's just the way he was raised."
Just saying it couldn't have hurt Gallagher much more than alluding to it did. The more Gallagher attacked Crist on gay issues, the more he cemented the notion that Crist had moderate appeal.
"You know what we all said on all that?" one Republican party insider says. "'Man, Crist is going to be in great shape after the primary. '"
But then there was Mark Foley.
Until the Fort Pierce Republican congressman abruptly resigned September 29 after his instant messages to an underaged former congressional page surfaced, Crist's campaign seemed bulletproof.
Early polls showed him well ahead of his Democratic challenger, Jim Davis, and political strategists seemed in agreement that no Democrat would attempt to bring up questions about sexual orientation after seeing Gallagher's campaign decimated by it. At the Crist camp, meanwhile, the matter of the candidate's sexuality was considered closed. Erin Isaac, one of the campaign's spokespeople, refused to allow New Times to interview Crist about his sexuality and the role that questions about it have played in this year's election.
"I know you'll say whatever you want," Isaac said during a curt phone call. "But he won't discuss this. He's not gay. He's not gay."
A week after that phone call, Foley's icky IMs surfaced, and the congressman resigned as the world consumed his leering discussions of masturbation and cock size with a teenaged boy. After Foley vanished, his attorney stepped in front of a microphone in West Palm Beach on October 3 and announced something this newspaper's columnist, Bob Norman, had settled three years ago: that Foley is a gay man.
Not that Foley's sexual orientation had anything to do with his apparent taste for very young men. But suddenly, newspapers around the country were rushing to write stories about the risks that Republican politicians face by remaining in the closet.
So maybe it's no wonder that the rumors about Crist have gone into overdrive. Partly, that's because of an unlikely figure: third-party candidate Max Linn.
Linn is running for Florida governor on the Reform Party ticket. In his previous life as a millionaire financial planner in St. Petersburg, he was a well-connected Republican fundraiser. He rolled with bigwigs like Mel Sembler, a St. Petersburg developer who has been influential in Charlie Crist's campaign, and Crist himself, whom Linn has known personally for decades. Linn played an important role behind the scenes in the Republican Party. And recently, he says, he began to hate it.
"I raised millions of dollars for the Republican Party for years," he says. "I know the whole inside game. Both parties are dishonest, both parties lie, both parties deceive. And the American people know it."
Though he says he still considers Crist and other Florida Republicans and fundraisers his friends, his bid for governor has led him to break with his old friends in spectacular ways. Using the campaign managers who worked for Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura, Linn has recast himself as a political wild card. One of his campaign strategies was to star in a cartoon as a superhero who vanquishes the corruption of the FCAT that his managers hoped would make the rounds on YouTube.com.
Now, in what most of Florida considers to be his latest stunt, he talks about Crist's sexuality.
On September 13, a Wednesday afternoon, Linn was politicking on an afternoon talk show on the Orlando-area radio station WFLA-AM (540). Bud Hedinger, host of the show, was peppering Linn with questions about his stances on immigration, education, and his opponents in the race. Annoyed that Hedinger was painting him as a softie on social issues, Linn began talking about Crist.
"It's also been a break that Charlie and his sexual-preference thing is going to come out," Linn told Hedinger, who played the role of astonished innocent to the hilt.
"Where are you going with this?" Hedinger asked. "What are you suggesting about Charlie Crist's sexuality?"
"Well, I think that's a known situation," Linn said.
"Wait a minute," Hedinger said. "Charlie Crist is single, and my understanding is that he was married."
"Well, I've known Charlie for 25 years," Linn continued, unbowed. "The fact is that his sexuality is going to be a huge factor with the Republican right wing."
"Let's get right out here with it: What are you saying about Charlie Crist?"
"Well, that his sexual preference is not to women," Linn replied coolly. "Absolutely, 100 percent, and I'd put my hand on a stack of Bibles. I've known him for 25 years, and that's going to come out. There's no question about it. There's just not an if, and, or but: It's a fact."
After a short stunned silence, Hedinger scolded Linn. "You'd better be right or you're opening yourself up for a real serious smear charge," he said before moving the show along.
Since that day, Linn has gone on to tell half a dozen other media outlets the same thing, but no mainstream paper aside from the St. Petersburg Times has mentioned Linn's claims.
Linn says that Crist first told him he didn't prefer women in 1984 at a class run by the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce. The second time, Linn says, was during Crist's unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1998. Linn says that during a private conversation, he asked Crist how he was going to handle "the gay issue."
"He said, 'You know what? No one's ever brought it up, and as long as no one's brought it up, I'm going to go on,'" Linn says Crist replied.
Crist has acknowledged that he was in the class with Linn in 1984 but denies having any conversation about his sexuality, saying that Linn is "misinformed" and "in desperate need of more attention."
Linn dismisses Crist's denials as Clintonian hair-splitting.
"People have asked him if he's gay, and he says no," he explains. "No one has ever asked if he's bisexual. No one has asked him: 'Have you had a romantic affair with a man?' He won't answer that. This was always an issue with Charlie. Everyone turns their heads the other way, including me for all those years. It's just like Foley."
While the mainstream press ignores Linn, the gay press has its own opinions about the Crist rumors.
At a recent conference of gay journalists held in Miami, Tom Dyer, the publisher of the gay newspaper that endorsed Crist, said the topic of Crist's orientation wasn't discussed much. "I think I heard somebody say something about it," Dyer says. "But I think the general reaction is that we don't think he's gay. It's his comfort level at the question. He's been asked many times, and he just says, 'No, I'm not.' He doesn't get defensive at all."
Gay leaders in Florida have all heard the rumors, and many believe that Crist is something other than straight. But the gay community also seems willing to live with a closeted gay man in office. And just as in the case of Republicans, the reasons behind their tolerance are pure politics.
"Anybody in the gay community who's working politically knows the policy nationally," Rusty Gordon, vice president of the Florida GLBT Democratic Caucus, says about the rules of outing. "Unless the politician has done something to seriously harm the gay community, outing them is considered bigotry."
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In other words, because Crist is moderate on gay issues, outing him is a form of gay-bashing. But if he ever turns his back on gays, he'll be fair game.
In the days after the Foley scandal, Crist's handlers scrambled to distance their man from the fallout. They debunked theories that Crist had been close with Foley, including a widespread rumor that the two men had once been roommates. They released policy statements designed to direct attention away from Crist's personal life. Crist's comments on the Foley scandal, which he was required as attorney general to investigate, were short and neutral.
But for the most part, the Crist machine is sticking to its original strategy: Don't let the rumors land. Throughout election season, the Crist campaign has refused to answer questions from reporters seeking to discuss Crist's sexuality. Kathryn Pemble, Crist's girlfriend, and Amanda Morrow, his ex-wife, don't return phone calls from reporters. And when Crist can't avoid the question, he answers it quickly and without elaboration: no.
The Crist campaign hopes it's enough to get them to Election Day.