Longform

Is Charlie Crist Florida's Next Governor?

Page 4 of 7

In the 1990s during his first state races, it became clear Crist didn't handle conflict like his father. "After Charlie defeated me, all he would say to me was 'Good evening, Senator,' or 'Good afternoon, Senator,' " recalls an early opponent who asked for anonymity. "Real sappy-sweet... It's bullshit."

And bullshit, Crist found, worked well in the state Senate. Once, in the mid-'90s, he hoisted chains above his head in the chamber to demonstrate his commitment to tying prisoners together as they trolled highway ravines for trash. The St. Petersburg Times called chain gangs the "worst idea of 1995," and even the state Department of Corrections held that chains impeded prisoner work, but Crist netted loads of positive publicity.

And in 1997, after Florida Power & Light abruptly raised rates, then-Senator Crist garnered major props for suing the company. "These issues gave him great credibility with people who never knew who he was," says Ron Sachs, former Gov. Lawton Chiles' communications director. "Few politicians in Florida's modern history have been so successful in reading the public mood."

However, he misread the mood that year when he abandoned the state Senate for a run at U.S. Congress. The immensely popular Bob Graham crushed him by 26 points. Two years later, Crist rebounded and was elected education commissioner. But Gov. Jeb Bush ignored Crist and appointed his own secretary of education, leaving Crist without power or influence. The decision didn't appear to bother Crist, who posted more than 100 pictures of himself on his education website and raised cash for a run at attorney general — though he'd failed the state bar twice.

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."

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."

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Terrence McCoy