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Crist's independence tests Hernando County Republican loyalties

One steamy afternoon in August 2006, Charlie Crist bounded off his charter bus and into Brooksville's Rising Sun Cafe.

It was the first stop of a campaign tour for Crist, the attorney general in the final stages of his fight to win the Republican gubernatorial nomination, with hopes of succeeding Gov. Jeb Bush.

Greeted by applause and cheers from beaming supporters crammed into the cafe, Crist shook hands with a longtime friend, Brooksville lawyer Tom Hogan Jr.

Hogan, who attended Cumberland School of Law in Alabama with Crist, lauded his buddy for his devotion to taking up "where Jeb left off." Crist took the microphone and promised to carry on "the Jeb Bush legacy."

Crist, of course, went on to win. Four years later, as Crist recently stood poised to abandon the GOP and run as an independent for the U.S. Senate, Hogan had a conversation with his old friend.

"You and I have been lifelong Republicans," Hogan later recalled telling Crist. "I hate to see this happen to our party, but you're my friend and whatever you decide, you'll still be my friend."

A few days after that, Crist stood in a St. Petersburg park to announce his independent bid. He made it official on May 12 by signing on the dotted line at a Pinellas County elections office.

Crist's stunning arc from Republican standard-bearer to nemesis has tested the fealties of his GOP fans across the state, and in some places, it's getting ugly: Pasco County GOP officials last week filed a grievance with the state party against state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, claiming he violated the party's loyalty oath for continuing to support Crist.

There is no such high drama in Hernando, but loyalties are being tested nonetheless. Some Republicans are wrestling with the decision of whether to stick with Crist or vote for the more conservative candidate whose rise prompted Crist to defect: former state House Speaker Marco Rubio of Miami.

There are personal loyalties like Hogan's and ideological divisions, too. Some stand firmly in Crist's camp, while others admit they are undecided. Most are firmly behind Rubio.

For Realtor Gary Schraut, who considers Crist a friend, the personal trumps the political. But Schraut acknowledged that Rubio is "a good man" and a strong candidate, too, so the last few months have been painful.

"This is like saying, which child do you support the most, your daughter or your son?" Schraut said. "But I made my commitment to Charlie Crist, and I'm not going to change that."

• • •

Two years into his term as governor, Crist dropped by a fundraiser for Hernando Clerk of Court Karen Nicolai hosted by Hogan and his wife, Debbie, at their Brooksville ranch. Trim and tan as ever, Crist rode into the party on a John Deere tractor.

Nicolai, a five-term incumbent, seemed invulnerable, but Hogan asked his old friend to make an appearance to help Nicolai add weight to her campaign war chest, and Crist obliged.

"You're doing a good job, and you deserve a big win," Crist told Nicolai that night as he stood next to her in front of supporters in the Hogans' barn. Nicolai's Democratic opponent would later drop out, citing family commitments.

Last month, Nicolai attended a campaign fundraiser for Crist at the Palace Grand in Spring Hill. But she was noncommittal when asked recently where she stands on Crist now.

"It is a tough one. I'll see how the campaigns come out," Nicolai said before quickly changing the subject to the gubernatorial race. "My main focus is going to be on (Republican Attorney General) Bill McCollum. He's a Hernando guy, and I know him well."

Buddy Selph, a Brooksville Realtor, also attended the Crist fundraiser. But that doesn't mean he's committed to the governor's Senate bid.

"I don't know that I've sorted my thoughts out on that," Selph said. "Some folks are so staunch on one political party, and some folks see the man or the individual, and I guess I sort of do both."

• • •

Dennis Wilfong has done his part to help Crist rise to power.

The Brooksville businessman and his wife, Pam, have hosted fundraisers during Crist's bids for education commissioner, attorney general and governor. In a photo at the Wilfong home, the couple's grandson, Jay, poses at age 6 or so with Crist. Jay is 16 now.

Last month, Wilfong, who also serves as the city of Brooksville's economic development ambassador, introduced Crist at the Palace Grand fundraiser.

"We need to have people in D.C. who have a heart for the state and have a heart for the constituents, and I think Charlie does that," Wilfong, in a later interview, recalled telling the audience.

Crist talked about why he took federal stimulus money — a move many conservatives decried — and his efforts to keep taxes low, Wilfong said.

By Wilfong's reckoning, the state party did Crist wrong by rallying around Rubio early in the primary.

"I think (Crist) was accurate when he said the party left him," Wilfong said.

Despite Hernando's small-town political confines, Wilfong said he doesn't feel tension or animosity from other members of the party for his support of Crist.

Blaise Ingoglia, chairman of the Hernando Republican Executive Committee, attended the Crist fundraiser but, from his recollection, was the only committee member to go.

Most local party members made up their minds early in the race, Ingoglia said, and are supporting Rubio. He pointed to Rubio's victory by a unanimous vote in a straw poll of REC members last September. Since then, Crist's defection has only made the local party stronger, Ingoglia said.

"This race not only has not caused any dissension, it has had the opposite effect," Ingoglia said. "People are coming out of the woodwork to volunteer for Marco's campaign. The switch has energized Marco's base here in Hernando."

During Crist's fundraiser at the Palace Grand, Ingoglia's predecessor, Ana Trinque, stood outside among a group of sign-waving Rubio supporters. In a recent interview, Trinque said her faith in Crist had already evaporated by the time he endorsed Sen. John McCain in the 2008 Republican presidential primary.

McCain was too moderate, Trinque said, and Crist had already said he would endorse Rudy Giuliani. She saw Crist's endorsement of McCain as an opportunistic move to angle for the vice presidency.

Since then, Trinque said, Crist has made a steady stream of disappointing stances: appointing less than true conservatives to judgeships and boards; accepting the federal stimulus money; and vetoing Senate Bill 6, the so-called teacher tenure bill, just to name a few. Refusing to give back money to Republican donors after he went independent added insult to injury, she said.

"I think there are going to be very, very few Republicans who will stick with Charlie Crist," Trinque said. "What happened to his core principles? It's just gone to pot."

Trinque said she has been impressed with Rubio since he came to Brooksville in 2007 to drum up support for an amendment to the state Constitution to cap property taxes at 1.35 percent of taxable value.

"He is a good, conservative person, and I feel he is the right person for the times who will definitely go to bat for us to counter what (President) Obama is doing," Trinque said.

Trinque's son is married to a granddaughter of Tom Hogan Sr., one of the founders of the local Republican Party. She said she avoids mentioning Crist when Tom Hogan Jr. is around.

"We just are polite about not bringing up Charlie because we know that's a sore spot," she said.

Tom Hogan Sr. did not return a call for comment. In a brief interview, his wife, Mary Ann, said the couple have always supported Rubio.

As for the differing allegiances of parents and son, she said: "We generally agree on most political things, but on some things we don't."

• • •

Crist himself has weighed in on the issue of fealty.

He was asked by the St. Petersburg Times editorial board recently about longtime friends like appointed U.S. Sen. George LeMieux and former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, who pulled their support.

"I would not say that they're not friends," Crist responded after a pause. "I would say that maybe they could be a little kinder."

The junior Hogan's loyalty to Crist goes beyond friendship. The man, Hogan said, has been a good governor.

"I think, unfortunately, the real issues have gotten lost in the campaign rhetoric," Hogan said. "He's cut taxes. I think he's held the line on government spending, and it hasn't been easy. I think he did the right thing for teachers recently (by vetoing SB 6). On balance, I think he's done a fine job."

The different loyalties among local Republicans are accepted with civility, he said.

"I don't think there are any hard feelings," Hogan said. "There's certainly not on my part."

He acknowledged, though, that there is a point where his political mores would trump 30 years of friendship with Crist.

"Something major has to happen to move me away from him," he said, "and that hasn't happened."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Crist's independence tests Hernando County Republican loyalties 05/22/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 22, 2010 3:19pm]
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