TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist says his confidence in Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp is "very strong," but he stopped short Thursday of saying he would keep Kottkamp on the ticket if he seeks re-election next year.
"If I would do that, I'll decide that in about a week," Crist said, referring to the much-anticipated announcement about his political future. He'll either run for a second term as governor or seek the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Mel Martinez.
Crist was questioned the day after Kottkamp confirmed that a state trooper drove the lieutenant governor and his wife, Cyndie, to suburban Atlanta last weekend in a state vehicle to attend a Kenny Loggins concert as part of a surprise birthday party for a Tallahassee lobbyist.
By law, a trooper is assigned as the lieutenant governor's round-the-clock security detail.
Kottkamp said the Florida Highway Patrol was simply doing its job by providing him full-time protection to official and personal events, and that lobbyist Steve Metz is a longtime friend whose daughter requested that he attend the event. He has attracted media scrutiny and an ethics complaint for his extensive use of state aircraft for travel between the state capital and his hometown of Fort Myers, and he has reimbursed the state $6,600 for trips that included his wife and young son.
Kottkamp has hired two lawyers to deal with the ethics complaint, which could be politically troublesome for a Republican who plans to run statewide in 2010. Friends say Kottkamp may run for the Cabinet post of attorney general if that office's occupant, Bill McCollum, runs for governor — a step widely expected if Crist runs for the Senate.
"It's good. Very good. Very strong," Crist said of the level of confidence in Kottkamp. As for the trip itself, and taking a trooper to Georgia at taxpayer expense, he said: "We've got to keep each other safe. I understand that's why the troopers are with him and that's why FDLE's with me. That's why that happens."
Speaking with reporters after a visit to an elementary school as part of Teacher Appreciation Week, Crist also hedged when asked if he would endorse Kottkamp for whichever office he sought in 2010.
"I don't think any of us know what the future is necessarily for particular candidates that may be running for different offices. I think we ought to wait and see," he said. "But I think the world of the lieutenant governor. I know he's a good man, and I know he works hard."
Crist is often reluctant to speak critically even of his political opponents, let alone Kottkamp, the man he picked in the summer of 2006 to be his running mate. Kottkamp was an early and vocal supporter of Crist's candidacy, was a popular state House member and worked for the prominent law firm of Morgan & Morgan, which gave him ties to the influential trial bar.
State records show the air travel for Kottkamp, his aides and his trooper escort cost taxpayers $722,000 in 2007 and 2008, even though the lieutenant governor has few official duties. The air travel for Crist and his aides totaled $932,000.
The governor said he is still reflecting on which office to run for in 2010. He said he would discuss it with his parents over the Mother's Day weekend in St. Petersburg.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.