Meet Charlie Crist's unconventional U.S. Senate campaign team

ST. PETERSBURG — Margaret Wood cheered loudly and maybe more sincerely than most as Gov. Charlie Crist told a crowd gathered along his hometown waterfront in April that he was abandoning the GOP to run for the U.S. Senate as a nonpartisan candidate.

Still, the 55-year-old former schoolteacher was taken aback afterward when her little brother asked her to manage his unprecedented independent campaign in America's largest and most complex swing state.

"I was like, 'I'm not sure I'm good enough. I want you to have the best,' " recalled Wood, who has managed her husband's St. Petersburg law firm for more than two decades.

Crist, 54, assured her he trusted no one more and needed her help — particularly because she's the kind of penny-pincher essential for an underdog campaign.

Put together that big sister, a longtime Tampa Bay GOP organizer, a veteran Democratic strategist and college buddy, and a New York City political hotshot with no Florida experience, and it sounds like a recipe for dysfunction.

But five months after Crist assembled his unconventional team, one sees strikingly little backbiting and internal sniping typical of trailing campaigns.

"Margaret is great. Everyone likes her and that has a lot to do with keeping a tense campaign drama-free. It has less drama than any other campaign I've been on,'' said Eric Johnson, 39, a top Democratic South Florida political strategist who used to serve as chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler.

Drama-free does not equal successful, however. The latest polls show Crist trailing well behind Republican Marco Rubio, while competing with Democrat Kendrick Meek for many voters. No one has ever won a Florida statewide campaign without party backing, and the hurdles facing Crist are enormous.

Crist lacks the basic voter-mobilization machinery enjoyed by both parties, including fine-tuned programs to chase down likely absentee voters. Every week, the Democratic and Republican parties in every corner of the state are reaching out to tens of thousands of voters with phone calls and door knocks, while Crist has volunteers working out of offices in St. Petersburg, Tallahassee and Fort Lauderdale, and fewer than a dozen people on his payroll.

Simply putting together a campaign event to draw a crowd can be challenging without the help of local party activists and elected officials. Even putting together a campaign team is a challenge for an independent candidate because political professionals tend to be tied to parties.

So the core of Crist's campaign are longtime friends and loyalists. In addition to Wood and Johnson:

• Mike Hamby, 54, a savvy, former executive of the Florida Democratic Party who has known Crist since Florida State and law school, is a key adviser despite initially helping Meek's campaign.

• Michelle Todd, political director, is so passionate about electing Republicans she received the Hillsborough GOP chairman's award for her activism in 2006. But she also says she would walk through fire for Crist and didn't think twice about sticking with him when he left the GOP. Todd, 29, said she became a deep admirer watching how Crist as attorney general improved services for victims of domestic violence, and cheered him earlier this year for vetoing a controversial bill on merit pay and teacher tenure.

• Hamby brought on Virginia-based pollster Keith Frederick, 55, who has three decades of experience with Democratic campaigns in Florida. His clients have included Bob Graham, Lawton Chiles, Sam Gibbons, Peter Deutsch and Alex Penelas in Miami-Dade County, among others. This year he is also working for independent gubernatorial candidates in Maine and Massachusetts.

• Josh Isay, 40, of New York City is Crist's media consultant, introduced by independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who is neutral in Florida's race. Isay, a Democrat who rose to prominence leading Chuck Schumer's 1998 upset over Republican Sen. Al D'Amato in New York, has represented everyone from Al Sharpton to Caroline Kennedy. And he hasn't hesitated to work for independents, notably Lieberman and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"I didn't know that much about Charlie Crist before I met him, and what is gratifying about this race is every time I'm with him or talk to him I like him more,'' Isay said. "I've worked for a lot of politicians and he's about the most genuine, nicest person I've ever worked with."

• Danny Kanner, who had been working in the Bloomberg administration as spokesman for the New York City schools chancellor, was brought on board by Isay to deal with the media. Despite Bloomberg's connections to Crist's campaign, the mayor has made it clear he's not taking sides in Florida's race. Kanner, 26, has worked with party-switchers before. In 2008 he was communications director for the successful campaign of Missouri attorney general candidate Chris Koster, who switched from Republican to Democrat.

Crist's narrow path to victory requires peeling away more independent voters from Rubio and knocking down Meek further among Democrats — all without any party infrastructure.

"If this was Charlie's first election, I don't know how you could do it, but he has a lot of people all over the state working for him,'' Wood said.

Isay noted that Crist already has a deep reservoir of goodwill among voters and enjoys as much popularity as any chief executive in the country, or more. In some respects the lack of a party apparatus, allows the campaign to be more nimble and avoid some of the typical turf issues that a party brings.

"It probably saves you more money in that you don't have to deal with the hacks that come with the party infrastructure,'' Isay said.

Nor does Crist have to rely largely on a team of operatives merely working on their latest job. In this case, it's mainly a group of underdogs intensely loyal to their boss.

"It's leaner and tighter than other campaigns, but everybody in this team really likes the candidate,'' Johnson said. "There's never any eye-rolling about the candidate, and that's because he's so nice. He thanks people for everything. He calls you after an event, and thanks you. That's rare."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

Meet Charlie Crist's unconventional U.S. Senate campaign team 10/10/10 [Last modified: Monday, October 11, 2010 8:25am]

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