Charlie Crist is one of the most scrutinized figures in politics. The Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat former governor of Florida, who wants his job back, has lots of fans and just as many detractors. As he tries to unseat Gov. Rick Scott (R) this fall, you'll hear from plenty of both.
In a thoroughly reported, detailed profile of Crist's life and political career, Adam C. Smith and Michael Kruse of the Tampa Bay Times raise a question that has divided his friends and enemies and has even befuddled some longtime observers of the governor: Is he a machine-like politician whose thirst for power has fueled his success in campaigns, or a natural people person whose knack for retail politics is simply a reflection of his ability to connect with average people?
The answer, according to Smith and Kruse? Yes. As in — it depends on your perspective.
If you haven't read the whole profile, you should. Here are our five biggest takeaways after reading it:
1. He's been campaigning his whole life. Crist was student body president in junior high school and high school. And classmates remember him as someone who cast a wide social net. He was generally nice to peers but very close to few. Engaging but careful. Many politicians today could be described similarly. Here's how his friends growing up recalled him:
"He almost wasn't like a normal high school kid," Crayton Pruitt said, suggesting Crist was strategic about "wanting to be with the right people." He went to the right parties. "I don't think he showed meanness to someone who wasn't a cool kid. He just didn't hang with them. He was with the people who other people wanted to be with."
Mindful of his image, he understood the importance of its upkeep. "We would do things that maybe would be a little rash," Mike Lusignan said, "but Charlie? 'Oh, no, man, I don't do that, I'll get in trouble.' "
Pruitt and Lusignan were two of his closest friends. Not anymore.
"I think Charlie, on the surface, would like to be friends with everybody," Pruitt said. "I think he's good at being superficially good friends with many people. I think he has many, many acquaintances. The number of deep friends he has may be much more limited."
2. He's one of the most aggressive fundraisers in politics. A big part of what separates good politicians from great ones is the ability to raise money. For many candidates, hitting the phones for hours every day and glad-handing at fundraiser after fundraiser is an exhausting, if necessary, reality of the modern campaign. But Crist — who is among the best in the business — seems to relish it. The profile starts with him non-jokingly urging donors at a glitzy fundraiser to give double what they pledged to contribute. And then there's this:
The stories of his chutzpah are legion. When a fundraiser tells him half an hour before the close of a quarterly reporting period that Crist will bring in, say, $1.5 million, he'll lay on the guilt trip: "That's really disappointing. I thought you'd get me to $2 million." When a lobbyist tells Crist he gave him $2,000 but $500 to his opponent? "Every dollar you give to him is like a bullet to my head."
"Charlie will ask you for five times more than you can afford, and you'll end up giving two and a half times more than you can afford," said George LeMieux, Crist's former chief of staff, once his closest confidant other than his father and now an arch political opponent.
3. Cool in public, but prickly in private. Crist's upbeat and cheerful public persona appears at odds with his demeanor in private. When he was governor, aides described him as someone with a quick temper and little patience for prolonged internal debate or dissent:
If an aide suggested to the governor that he lacked the legal authority to do this or that, he would snap, mockingly: "How many Supreme Court justices have you appointed?"
4. His most trusted adviser has been his dad. Crist turned to his father for advice before he and his his first wife filed for divorce. He involved dad in strategy calls as he worked his way up the ladder of Florida politics. And as governor, he relied on his father during important policy decisions:
On many issues, particularly health care, everyone around Crist understood that the primary voice that mattered was that of his father. Dr. Crist, home in St. Petersburg, was one of the governor's most important phone calls every day.
5. A brutal line from a former confidant. One of the biggest knocks on Crist is that he's a purely political creature who goes whichever way the wind blows. Opponents see his transition from Republican to Democrat as a reflection of his recognition that the turnabout was his easiest path back to power. He rejects this notion, arguing the GOP left him with its rightward march, and pitches himself as a empathetic person who really gets what everyday voters worry about most. But this bit from LeMieux, a former top ally and chief of staff who is no longer a supporter, is pretty stinging:
At least the first year of Crist's administration, employees knew they could get clarity and direction from chief of staff LeMieux, who says his old boss started losing interest in the job of governor during the summer of 2007 — not even a year into his term.
"The campaigning has always had more allure to him than the governing," LeMieux said.