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Crist says that he's still on call as governor

Independent candidate for the U.S. Senate and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist appears at the Florida Realtors Candidate Forum at the Rosen Shingle Creek resort in Orlando on Aug. 27.

Associated Press

Independent candidate for the U.S. Senate and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist appears at the Florida Realtors Candidate Forum at the Rosen Shingle Creek resort in Orlando on Aug. 27.

TALLAHASSEE — In his final months as governor, Charlie Crist is phoning it in — literally.

As his U.S. Senate campaign shifts into high gear, Crist's official daily work schedule shows him spending less and less time as governor, and more and more time checking in with his aides from the campaign trail.

Crist's schedule for the past month shows no official events on 11 weekdays and only one event on six other days.

A day-by-day review shows that even on most days his schedule showed him working, he did not have a crowded calendar.

On Aug. 3, he attended one event, a tourism roundtable in Fort Lauderdale — one of only two events in the past six weeks focusing on Florida's economic problems.

The next day, Crist's sole public event was a visit to Miami Jewish Health Systems. The day after that, he conducted site visits of two facilities in St. Petersburg and Sarasota, and the following day, Aug. 6, his only official event was a news conference in Orlando.

On 11 days, the only item of official business was a telephone call to Shane Strum, his chief of staff. He met with heads of executive branch agencies on Sept. 2, the first such meeting since July 21.

This from a governor who four years ago used an empty chair to symbolize missed votes in Congress by his Democratic opponent, Jim Davis. In that 2006 campaign, Crist promised Floridians: "I'll work for you every day."

Despite the light schedule lately, Crist says he has kept that commitment, through the use of his cell phone.

"I've been in constant touch with the office every day, several times a day. That's my duty and my obligation to the people of Florida," he said. "As long as I've got my phone with me, I'm never not governor."

Crist has been using that line ever since the news media began questioning the amount of time he has scheduled off since he was sworn into office on Jan. 2, 2007. Three days later — a Friday — he took the day off. A St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald analysis of his daily work schedule shows he has scheduled no work for 123 days — a number that excludes weekends but includes conventional holiday time. On 238 other days, Crist worked half days or less — equal to an additional 164 days off.

Added together, Crist's schedule indicates he has taken off an average of more than 14 weeks annually over four years, though his term isn't finished. Crist has worked some weekends — often attending luncheons or parades — and has put in days where he has worked more than eight hours. But that overtime work is eclipsed by the equivalent time off he took on 250 other days in which he worked less than 8 hours but slightly more than a half day.

On Tuesday, a typical day of late, Crist had no events on his official schedule. He met with members of a pipe fitters' and plumbers' union in Miami-Dade and spoke to a group of retired New York City police officers in Margate.

On Wednesday, Crist had one official event: a speech to hotel owners in Palm Beach County.

Florida's economy remains deep in the doldrums, and Crist has come under fire from legislative leaders for not advancing more specific steps to help Panhandle-area businesses and residents recover from the oil spill. Both political parties have ripped Crist for campaigning too much.

Both of Crist's U.S. Senate rivals, former state Rep. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, criticized his slack schedule. Recalling Crist's pledge in 2006 to "come to work every day," Rubio campaign spokesman Alex Burgos said: "It's clear that was just another thing he was willing to say to get elected."

Meek spokesman Adam Sharon said Crist "remains the lifelong conservative Republican who prefers running for office rather than sitting in one . . . (his) schedule remains incredibly light, even by his standards."

Both Republican Rubio and Democrat Meek view Crist's independent candidacy as a serious threat.

Asked whether Crist was away from the office too much, Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp said: "I don't know. I'm really just trying to stay focused on the responsibilities I have and trying to keep things moving."

On most days he was away from Tallahassee, Crist was campaigning.

As Crist's term as governor winds down, some staff members have departed to seek new jobs, and agency heads have begun compiling briefing books to hand off to the next governor, Republican Rick Scott or Democrat Alex Sink. In recent weeks, Crist's environmental secretary, Mike Sole, has resigned along with two deputy chiefs of staff, David Foy and Kathy Mears.

Some observers say Crist's shift to campaign mode is not surprising for a lame-duck officeholder who is seeking a new office and has a fight on his hands.

"That's not unusual," said Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, the incoming House Democratic leader. "As long as his people are doing their jobs, I don't see too much of a problem."

Another sign of a major shift in Crist's work schedule is that he has not done enough official business to justify using the state aircraft since June 20. That day, he made a Sunday flight to Apalachicola, where he met with business owners coping with the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster and viewing Gulf Coast oil spill containment booms.

Since then, his visibility has receded because the oil spill has vanished from prime-time TV news shows and front pages.

Crist is careful not to use state aircraft to get to and from political events. He takes commercial flights or travels in a state-owned SUV with a state law enforcement official behind the wheel. Agents are required by law to provide 24-hour security to the governor.

Another complication for Crist is that for the fifth straight year, so far, Florida has been spared a major hurricane that forces a governor to don a windbreaker and demonstrate round-the-clock leadership.

The result is that Crist is on television less often, which means he must work harder to attract media coverage to reach voters.

At the same time, some events on Crist's official schedule appear tailored to appeal to important constituency groups in statewide elections, such as back-to-school shoppers, seniors and veterans.

The administration, in promoting a Thursday event in St. Petersburg aimed at matching jobless veterans with employment opportunities, told media outlets: "The news conference will feature good visuals and a variety of speakers, veterans and employers."

Crist's aides emphasize his admonition to "finish strong," and say that just because he isn't in his Capitol office holding meetings, it does not mean he's not being a dutiful governor.

"He weighs in on everything," said Strum. "He'll ask, 'What's the schedule look like tomorrow?' He's still governor, 24/7."

Strum said Crist has spent a lot of time lately filling judicial vacancies and making appointments to water management districts and dozens of boards and commissions.

A comparison of Crist's work schedule for August 2010 to the same month last year shows how much things have changed.

Last August, Crist took one day off. His schedule that month was crowded with visits to military bases, school visits and interviews with candidates for a vacant U.S. Senate seat.

This August, his schedule showed eight days with no official events. Crist held two August news conferences highlighting the popular sales tax holiday for back-to-school shoppers. One was in Miami on Aug. 12, and the other was in Orlando the following day.

Last year, he held four such events all in one day, Aug. 14, in Orlando, Tampa, Fort Myers and Miami.

Crist's outside-the-box independent candidacy presents logistical challenges, because he lacks the Republican Party events and staff support that he had in all of his four previous statewide elections. No political structure exists for nonpartisan candidates.

"That's what's so out of the box about what I'm doing," Crist said. "But I think that because of how gridlocked Washington is, and incapable of really moving forward and so partisan, this may be the time when an independent candidacy is something the people really want."

Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Jeff Harrington contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Crist says that he's still on call as governor 09/10/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 11, 2010 11:07pm]
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