An afternoon with Charlie, the once-and-future Governor

By on September 6, 2012

Editor’s note: With Charlie Crist taking the stage tonight at the Democratic Convention, I thought it appropriate to revisit one of my popular posts, “An afternoon with Charlie, the once-and-future Governor.” This was the first sit-down Crist took part in after the 2010 election.

“Hey, Governor, please, PLEASE, run again,” said the hundredth or so person to shake hands with Charlie Crist last Saturday at the ‘Hands Across the Sand’ event in St. Pete Beach.

“It’s just Charlie,” replies the once-and-future Governor, who, although he won’t say it, appears to have gained a much-needed five pounds on his decidedly thin frame.

If Charlie Crist is one thing right now, it’s a happily married man.  The former state Senator, Commissioner of Education, Attorney General and Governor was a bachelor for much of his time in public life, but for the last three years, Charlie Crist has been a husband and step-father.  And, just as it is for most any man, the wonders of family life have matured Crist for the better.

So, whether it be because he is out of office or because of the joys of marriage or just because he is closer to sunset than sunrise, Charlie Crist is a very different man than he was only a few years ago.

This past weekend, I tagged along with Crist and my girlfriend, Michelle Todd, Crist’s ever-loyal former staffer who was helping him with a press conference at the TradeWinds Resort about ‘Hands Across the Sand.’ Walking into the hotel, Crist was immediately mobbed by one well-wisher after another.

Of course, Crist has always been mobbed by well-wishers, especially on his home turf in Pinellas.  But there was something different about the way Crist was embraced by the crowds at the TradeWinds.  With each handshake, both Charlie and the well-wishers seemed to be saying more to each other than ‘hello.’

To me, it appeared as if all involved were saying ‘sorry.’

From Crist, it was an apology for not running for a second-term…an apology for leaving the state in the hands of a successor who doesn’t seem to love Florida as much as his predecessors…an apology for wasting the hope people had placed in him over three decades of campaigns and elections.

From all of those well-wishers, it was an apology for having doubted Crist…an apology for having laughed or sneered at his naked opportunism…an apology for having, maybe, voted for Rick Scott, a man they now realize is less than what they had hoped.

But the apologies I see are probably not even there.  What is obvious is the rock-star welcoming for a politician who has spent his political career, and now his private life, talking about “the people.”  And now that no Florida politician is talking about “the people”, many Floridians seem to want to hear just that.  In fact, look for Crist’s next round of ads, which he filmed last week for Morgan & Morgan, to “thank” law enforcement in one and teachers in another.

At the press conference, Crist is embraced by local politicians – Democrat and Republican – with just as much admiration as the strangers in the hotel lobby.  County commissioners, city councilmembers and state legislators seem to be offering their own apology for having not realized how good they had it only a year or two ago.

Of course, there is not a hint of regret in Charlie Crist’s remarks at the press conference or his conversations with any of the Floridians he so desperately misses serving.  Nor does Charlie show much regret when he and his wife sit down for lunch with Michelle, myself and another friend.

Actually, Charlie is upbeat, as always, but, like so much of his personality, in a more mature way than he was earlier this decade.  He is also astutely aware of the political climate in Florida.  He’s aware of this set of poll numbers and that news story.  He is aware of who said what and why.  He has nothing negative to say about Rick Scott, but he does seem to feel sorry for him.  Not for Scott’s current political problems or low approval ratings, but because Scott just doesn’t seem to love Florida as much as Crist does or Jeb Bush does or Bob Graham does.

At the restaurant, Crist is well-wished again and again, urged to run again and again.  So much so that one would think the next election is in 2012, rather than 2014.  Of course, there are elections in 2012, but Crist wants no part of them.  Any thought of him challenging Bill Young is lost in all of Crist’s talk of Florida, his wife, his hometown, his new-found happiness and maturity.  No way does this guy want to go to Washington, D.C.

So all Charlie Crist can do is wait.  Wait, and hope that Rick Scott’s poll numbers don’t improve too much.  And hope that Scott doesn’t not seek a second term.  And hope that the economy neither improves nor stumbles.

There are countless factors which could forestall Crist’s shot at redemption.

But if the stars align, Crist will announce that he is running for Governor sometime in early 2014, not so early as to seem like he never went away, but no so late that Alex Sink decides to enter the Democratic primary before he does.  Because if Crist enters before Sink, she will have nowhere to go.  Crist will be embraced by the African-American community, which still views him as a hero for his work on civil rights, including the restoration of felon rights.  Crist will be embraced by the environmental community, which looks at Crist as a prodigal son ready to return to his (green) roots.  Crist will be embraced by the firefighters and police and teachers and all of the other public sector employees who have been downright humiliated by Rick Scott.

In other words, Crist will win the Democratic primary for Governor in a walk, no matter who runs against him.

As for Crist vs. Scott, this is simply a no-brainer.  Crist will never have to say a single cross word about Scott, as Florida voters will be seething at the opportunity to vote Scott the hell out of office.

The problem for Scott, besides the obvious, is that the man simply has no political reservoir from which to draw strength.  He does not have twenty years of political favors to call in.  He does not have years of positive headlines to point to.  He does not have much of a staff to work for him.  He has a checkbook.  And that’s about it.

All of this is apparent to Crist as we nosh on grouper bites and onion rings, but he doesn’t have to say it.  People like myself will write about it. His opponents will disagree (like Nancy Smith and the Shark Tank did here and here).  But Crist’s path is now clear.  He must, like so many other American politicians – Nixon, Reagan, Clinton – struggle through these wilderness years.

Because only if you have been in the deepest valley, can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.

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