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Finding Crist: the auspicious beginnings of Charlie Crist’s controversial candidacy

Former Florida governor launches campaign to be re-elected, this time as a Democrat

Photo: Photos by Billy Manes, License: N/A

Photos by Billy Manes

Photo: , License: N/A

Like all political spin cycles should, it starts on a spiral staircase.

On Oct. 15, at the tastefully extravagant downtown penthouse of Democratic fundraiser and former Florida Democratic Party chairman Bob Poe, former Republican governor Charlie Crist is perched midway up the stairs, facing a room full of local progressive activists, elected officials and social climbers who’ve gathered before the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking downtown Orlando. Crist has already made his rounds of the crowd and been mobbed for cell-phone selfies and polite hellos. (“Ah, you’re a journalist,” he said to me, before handing me his Morgan & Morgan business card.

“Stay in touch.”) Now he’s about to deliver his pitch.

Except he isn’t.

From about five feet above the assembled crowd, Crist delivers what can best be described as a flirtation with political re-entry, wishing and washing just above the cracks of electoral calculus like a wet finger stuck in the wind of the moment to determine its direction. Florida is in trouble, we deserve better, promises have been broken, something’s got to give, “Right, Billy?” He points. I heckle, “Announce, already.” The room laughs. A few minutes later, Orange County Comptroller Martha Haynie, a Republican, offers that she’ll hop parties if he hops into the political fray – this is, after all, a soft opening for Crist’s inevitable announcement that he will be running for governor in 2014, and everyone knows it – though later Haynie will tell the Orlando Sentinel that she was caught up in the moment. The whole room was.

One week later, Oct. 22, walking up to a private gathering at attorney John Morgan’s Altamonte Springs mansion organized for U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Crist spots me coming down the sidewalk and points again. “Billy!” he says, careful to never forget a face; small talk follows, but nothing of substance. Inside, Reid – fresh from extensive negotiations to end the federal government shutdown – speaks hoarsely and quietly of “Florida’s next great governor, Charlie Crist” to a small, well-heeled audience that includes Poe and Sen. Bill Nelson.

That same night, at the Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando annual gala, Congressman Alan Grayson, D-Kissimmee, buttonholes me about the looming gubernatorial race. “I’m just worried there might be a Charlie problem,” he says, pointing out the obvious: Progressives don’t know what to do with their former enemy playing on the home team. There is certainly a Charlie problem.

For nearly three years, Democrats have been aware of Crist’s likely (and unlikely) candidacy, ever since the first Morgan & Morgan advertisement aired with Crist reciting that “for the people” tagline. There’s certainly been a grooming process following Crist’s failure as a spurned independent against Republican Marco Rubio in the 2010 U.S. Senate race, but to some degree it’s also been a dramatic pause for the former governor, attorney general and education commissioner, a chance for perceptions to reset under the tutelage of Morgan, a political powerhouse who ranked 17th nationally in fundraising for President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2012. In that time, only one viable Democratic candidate – former Florida Senate minority leader Nan Rich – has emerged, albeit without much traction, political or financial. Rich may have been a twice-featured speaker at the Florida Democratic Party conference in Orlando in late October, but it was Crist – a smiling, hand-shaking machine – who walked away with all the headlines. Rich has, expectedly and even rightfully, been defensive about the Crist christening, contrasting his “style over substance” demeanor with her own progressive record in the legislature.

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