Charlie Crist’s career has mirrored, and at times refracted, the insane political climate of the last decade

Best of the Bay 2020: 16 people or places that've undoubtedly changed Tampa Bay for the better.

click to enlarge Charlie Crist at a Pride Flag raising in St. Petersburg, Florida on June 1, 2020. - cityofstpete/Flickr
Charlie Crist at a Pride Flag raising in St. Petersburg, Florida on June 1, 2020.

Spring, 2007. Then-Governor Charlie Crist stood in the parlor of the Williams House, an old Victorian structure that now lives on the USF St. Pete campus. One of the few Tampa Bay-born Florida governors in modern history, he was doing what he does best: holding court as a room full of students, politicos and media volleyed questions.

He was a popular moderate with potential for a meteoric rise in national politics—and what seemed like the ambition to match. He was first elected to the state senate in 1992, then education commissioner, then Florida attorney general, then governor. It appeared to be smooth sailing. A woman toward the back of the room asked what others there were wondering about the charismatic St. Pete native: "Are you really a Republican?"

After all, his policy positions were generally not what one would associate with the GOP. He was very pro-environment, pro-public education and pro-science. At the time, his answer was a solid yes. Party of Lincoln, after all. Times have, indisputably, changed.

The arc of Crist’s career has since been mirrored (and at times refracted) the insane political climate of the last decade-plus. In the face of creeping extremism, he was among the first prominent Republicans to resist the temptation of a hard-right turn that would keep him in the party’s good graces. A year after the Williams House forum, he was on Sen. John McCain’s list of potential VP picks. Some would argue that McCain’s ultimate choice, Sarah Palin, is kind of why we are where we are today.

In 2010, Crist eschewed reelection in favor of a U.S. Senate run for a seat that was open because he appointed his former chief of staff, George LeMieux, to replace retiring Senator Mel Martinez. The chatter, of course, was that LeMieux was keeping the seat warm for Crist.

Then the Tea Party wave hit. In the personage of one Marco Rubio, Republicans had a guy who could appeal to all GOP factions, from the Tea Party to Big Sugar. Crist, meanwhile, had pissed off his party by accepting federal stimulus dollars, a moment immortalized in a photo of him embracing President Obama. The party was already not too keen on his positions on issues like gun safety and the environment.

By May of 2010, Crist exited the Republican Party, and announced his non-party U.S. Senate bid. But because Democratic Congressman Kendrick Meek was already on the ballot, the Dem vote was split, and Rubio is still a sitting Senator today (if it’s possible to sit without a spine). In 2014, Crist—now a Democrat—challenged Governor Rick Scott for his old job to no avail in an off year when Dems tend to be tepid about going to the polls.

In 2016, he challenged then-U.S. Rep. David Jolly, then a moderate Republican who passionately disavowed Trumpism, for Florida’s Congressional District 13 seat, which covers Pinellas from the south end to Clearwater, roughly—and won. (Jolly has since left the Republican party as well.)

It may not be the presidency, a U.S. Senate seat or the governorship, but Crist really seems like he’s in his element now. FL-13 includes his hometown, where he’s got sustained star power to constituents from most zip codes. He gets to advocate for them while sponsoring compassionate legislation that, while it might not make it to the president’s desk, gets his colleagues on the record on important issues like gun safety and the environment.

See all winners from Best of the Bay 2020.

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