MIAMI — If the Seminole Tribe of Florida included millions of members, as opposed to its actual 3,200 or so members, Gov. Charlie Crist might well be a shoo-in for U.S. Senate.
Florida's newly independent governor, who last week abandoned his attempt to secure the Republican nomination in November's Senate election and instead launched an unprecedented no-party bid, received a jubilant welcome from the tribe at a compact-signing ceremony held Wednesday afternoon at the Seminoles' Hollywood reservation.
Tribal leaders told their members to ''remember November."
Crist was instrumental in getting the compact through the Florida Legislature. The deal guarantees the Seminoles the right to table games such as blackjack in exchange for at least $1 billion in payments to the state over five years.
For decades, the tribe had sought, without success, to strike some sort of revenue-sharing deal with the state.
On top of blackjack, the compact also grants the Seminoles the exclusive right to Vegas-style slot machines outside of South Florida. There is also value in the tribe having its gaming rights explicitly laid out, as the legal boundaries of Seminole gambling have been the subject of at least nine lawsuits over the years.
Crist entered the event to a standing ovation, and attendees rose to their feet again when he spoke.
"What a happy day," Crist told the crowd of several hundred, a mixture of tribal members, casino workers and elected officials. "This took a lot of patience."
Tribal representatives made clear their gratitude that Crist never abandoned the compact talks, even as they dragged on over three years.
"When you're a friend of Seminole, you'll be a friend of Seminole for life," tribal council member Max Osceola Jr. told Crist as the crowd listened. Osceola then turned his attention to the governor's Senate bid.
"Governor, in the Constitution it doesn't say 'We, the Party,' it says 'We, the People,' " Osceola said.
Crist nodded and thumped the table where he was sitting in approval.
Technically, Crist already signed the landmark Seminole compact legislation last week, but that signing came with little fanfare. Wednesday's more-festive event featured a ceremonial re-signing under the leaves of the tribe's historically significant Council Oak.
Asked by reporters if the tribe might help raise funds for his Senate campaign, Crist responded ''I don't know, that's up to them. Time will tell."