TALLAHASSEE — The spring 2009 legislative session was winding down, and Gov. Charlie Crist had Senate President Jeff Atwater on the phone. The House had just passed a plan to allow near-shore oil drilling in Florida's waters. Crist wanted Atwater to follow suit.
In an interview Tuesday with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board, Atwater said Crist called him with specific requests on two or three pieces of legislation, including the oil drilling bill.
"It was not, 'Hey, among these three things, might you give me any of these?' " Atwater recalled. "It was, 'Will you pass that?' "
Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, added: "It was very professional, it wasn't rude. He asked, and I said no."
Crist said Tuesday he does not recall the conversation.
"If such a call would have been made, it would have been in the context that it (oil drilling) would be far enough, safe enough and clean enough," he said, adding that he supported the Senate taking up the bill to give it "fair debate."
In a reference to his exit from the Republican Party in April, Crist said: "Many of my Republican colleagues have very selective memories these days about me."
Crist's evolving positions on drilling have been well chronicled, but Atwater's story adds new insight to the independent U.S. Senate candidate who proclaims himself as a defender of Florida's beaches.
Atwater's comment on Tuesday comes just a day after Crist discussed the 2009 drilling proposal with the Orlando Sentinel. During the interview, a member of the newspaper's editorial board noted that Atwater's Senate held up the legislation.
"Well, had he let it go somewhere, I would have vetoed that too," Crist said.
Several months before the phone call with Atwater, Crist began softening what had been his antidrilling stance. At campaign rallies with John McCain in 2008 amid "drill, baby, drill" chants and a spike in gas prices, Crist said "we ought to at least study" drilling off Florida's coast.
Days before the 2009 session ended, Crist said he was concerned about the "lateness of the hour" of the drilling proposal. But in December 2009, he told the Sentinel the oil drilling bill is "something I support" because it had enough safeguards to protect the environment.
Then the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, and Crist said that convinced him that drilling is too risky. The governor spent weeks in the Florida Panhandle, and the national media spotlight, reassuring residents and businesses that Florida's coastal tourism industry would survive.
That same month, Crist abandoned his effort to win the GOP nomination for the Senate, quit the party and announced he would run as an independent.
In July, the governor called the Legislature into a special session asking it to put a referendum on the November ballot to put a drilling ban in the state Constitution.
"They put the interests of special interests or their party ideology ahead of what's right for the people," Crist said of the Republican legislative leaders and their effort to open Florida waters to drilling. "They've completely lost their way.''
The legislative leaders ignored him and adjourned in two hours without taking any action.
Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] at (850) 224-7263.