George LeMieux is an old hand running political campaigns, but he wound up in the U.S. Senate by ferociously campaigning for just one vote: Gov. Charlie Crist's.
How LeMieux pulled it off — tapped to fill a vacant Senate seat in 2009 by a governor who had reservations about his former chief of staff — speaks volumes about LeMieux's ambition, savvy and knack for bare-knuckle politics that's again playing out as he campaigns to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.
"He really wanted to do it. So he was going to do everything he could," former Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp said. "He really, really wanted to do it."
Kottkamp had been told he would be picked. Other top contenders included former Secretary of State Jim Smith, U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, former U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw and Board of Education member Roberto Martinez.
University of North Florida president John Delaney was told he could start looking for a place to live in D.C. The job was his.
But then LeMieux allies created an anonymous website attacking Delaney. It noted that in 2008 Delaney, former Jacksonville mayor, had publicly opposed a property-tax initiative promoted by Crist. The Senate offer was promptly yanked.
It was a tactic repeated again and again as potential picks gained steam.
"I've got to salute him. He was playing politics, and the rest of us weren't," Delaney said of LeMieux. "We were playing by Marquis of Queensbury rules. He got what he wanted."
Now LeMieux, 43, is campaigning statewide for the U.S. Senate, touting his conservative 16-month record as an appointed senator. And his main rival for the Republican nomination, U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV, is trying to tar LeMieux over his aggressive campaign for the appointment.
Mack's campaign this week requested that the U.S. Justice Department investigate how LeMieux won the appointment after the Tampa Tribune quoted former Florida Republican chairman Jim Greer saying LeMieux "pressured" Crist for the job.
With no evidence to back it up, Mack's campaign suggested LeMieux may have employed "extortion or bribery."
LeMieux called the claims "nonsense" and said he did nothing inappropriate to get the post.
"You'd have to ask Crist how he was convinced. I met with him. I told him why I would be a good senator," LeMieux told the Times/Herald. "I went through what I thought was important. I had read a bunch of the bills at the time that were pending. And I talked to him about that. I told him that I'd be hands-on, that he knew me, that I was a person who was hard-working who would do what's right — nobody would outwork me."
Crist scoffed at the notion that LeMieux used some kind of pressure on him.
"None whatsoever," he told the Times/Herald. "I picked him because I thought he would serve the people of Florida well. It's that simple."
Crist also brushed off Greer's comments as part of "a pattern of delusional statements and outright lies."
Still, that 2009 Senate selection process offers a window into LeMieux's political style as well as Crist's chaotic process of replacing Mel Martinez — with a seat-warmer for Crist, who was running for the Senate seat in 2010 and expected to win before losing to Marco Rubio.
Mel Martinez announced he would step down early in August 2009. He made it clear to Crist whom he wanted to fill out the remainder of his term: former Secretary of State Smith.
"Mel thought Charlie was going to appoint me,'' said Smith, who thought the same thing. "As Charlie does, he gave Mel the perfect answer: 'Don't worry about it, Mel.' . . . Probably everybody he had a conversation with or talked to believed he was going to be appointed. Charlie's a master at that."
Smith looked like an early frontrunner. Quickly, though, Florida's political circles started buzzing with chatter that Crist would take heat if he appointed a lobbyist like Smith.
Every time speculation would center on a perceived frontrunner, negative information or criticism of that candidate would surface, invariably fueled by allies of LeMieux.
Miami lawyer and Board of Education member Roberto Martinez? He had contributed to Democratic candidates in the past. Former U.S. Rep. Shaw? He had voted for an assault weapons ban and therefore was poison to Crist's friends at the NRA. People involved in the selection process said Crist at one point favored Rep. Young, R-Indian Shores, but Young took himself out of the mix.
One person not under serious consideration? LeMieux, then a lawyer in private practice and consultant to the state GOP. Nonetheless, he was regularly calling old colleagues in the governor's office for intelligence.
"The governor was clear that George was not going to get an interview and he was not going to get an appointment," recalled Greer, who has become a harsh critic of Crist and LeMieux since he was indicted and accused of stealing nearly $200,000 from the state party. His federal trial is scheduled for July.
LeMieux was adamant that he deserved an interview, however, and met with Greer and Crist's chief of staff Eric Eikenberg at 1 a.m. at a Tallahassee Whataburger.
"The night we met with him I delivered a strong but cordial message: You're not going to get an interview and he was not going to get an appointment,'' Greer said. "George had very strong points — all the things he had done for the governor. He felt confident if he got an interview with the governor, he was confident he'd get the appointment."
Soon Crist decided to name Delaney to the Senate, but that was torpedoed after the anonymous website surfaced.
With Delaney out of the hunt, Greer and Kottkamp said, Crist decided to pick Kottkamp.
The lieutenant governor said he wasn't especially interested in uprooting his family, but agreed to accept it for Crist. There were preconditions: He would not run for re-election, he would not run for another office, and he would consider resigning before the end of his term to give Sen.-elect Crist more time in office.
Kottkamp met with Greer and Eikenberg at the state GOP headquarters to go over details.
"I was going to be the pick and it would be announced, I think in two days," Kottkamp recalled. He said LeMieux's aggressive lobbying for the seat probably backfired on him.
But then, Crist announced on Aug. 28, 2009, that LeMieux would be Florida's new senator.
"There's a lot more to this story and I'm not ready to tell it," Greer said this week.
Several months ago, LeMieux sought Delaney's 2012 U.S. Senate endorsement, and Delaney reminded him about the attack. LeMieux apologized.
"I didn't want anyone on my behalf saying anything negative about a good man. I didn't advocate for anybody to do that. I certainly knew things were going on," LeMieux said. "So I felt bad about that, and I did apologize because John Delaney's a good man."
Delaney declined to endorse him.
Meanwhile, some of the people involved in that Senate appointment drama are still shaking their heads over the process.
"If that rumor comes true about Crist running for governor as a Democrat," former Secretary of State Smith said, "a real good ad might be to have six or seven of us each say to the camera, 'Charlie told me he was going to appoint me to the U.S. Senate.' Then it would end with, 'Can you believe anything Charlie Crist says?' "
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com. Marc Caputo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.