TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist chose his campaign "maestro," closest friend and top adviser George LeMieux to fill a highly coveted seat in the U.S. Senate that the governor hopes to win next year.
By choosing his former chief of staff as a Senate fill-in Friday, Crist picked personal loyalty over the potential perception of cronyism, a charge that opponents quickly leveled and that Crist dismissed as meaningless.
"I know his soul," Crist said. "I am not only happy for my friend, I am happy for my state, because I know the kind of public servant he is and will be."
Crist also knows LeMieux won't buck him. Crist decided earlier this month not to appoint himself to the office that Sen. Mel Martinez is leaving early, making the choice of LeMieux the next best thing. Crist rejected nine other candidates, including three former members of Congress.
LeMieux, 40, will be the youngest sitting member of the U.S. Senate. The Fort Lauderdale native will be the first senator from Broward and will hold one of the most powerful elected offices in the nation without ever having won an election.
Crist and LeMieux have been in lockstep since 2002, when Crist was elected state attorney general and appointed LeMieux his deputy. LeMieux earned Crist's nickname "the maestro'' for orchestrating his 2006 gubernatorial victory.
LeMieux served as Crist's right-hand man during 2007, and Crist often turned to him to plot strategy and articulate policy nuances. After leaving the governor's office, LeMieux returned to his old law firm, West Palm Beach-based Gunster Yoakley & Stewart.
He remained one of Crist's most trusted confidantes, and the two sometimes speak up to four times a day.
On the campaign trail next year, the clean-cut, smooth-talking LeMieux could serve as an effective surrogate for Crist's Senate ambitions.
While many Republicans have questioned Crist's conservative bona fides, LeMieux was the first top-level Florida Republican to unabashedly state: "I'm a Charlie Crist Republican."
LeMieux, who produces an electronic newsletter, the LeMieux Report, seldom misses a chance to talk up Crist's accomplishments and his stance as a "problem-solver'' who steers a middle-of-the-road course.
"I want to focus on what government spends its money on, how it could do it more efficiently and how it could do it more effectively," LeMieux said Friday when announced as Crist's pick.
The governor chose a historic setting: the restored Senate chamber of the Old Capitol. A hastily recruited crowd of state workers, Republican Party employees and others gave LeMieux two standing ovations.
LeMieux, who will resign his post at Gunster, said he'll visit Washington next week. He'll take his seat after Sept. 9 to help oppose President Barack Obama's health plan and offer Republican alternatives. The job pays $174,000 yearly.
Once LeMieux replaces the Cuban-born Martinez, the Republican Senate caucus will be left without a Hispanic — an increasingly crucial demographic in state and national elections.
Crist had considered appointing former U.S. attorney and current state education board member Roberto Martinez, but said he decided Thursday night to go with LeMieux.
Like Crist, LeMieux won't be a hard-core conservative. In 1998, seeking a state House seat in a liberal-leaning Broward district, he advocated moderate positions: reviewing sales-tax exemptions that benefit businesses, supporting gay adoptions and a willingness to support gay marriage if approved by voter referendum.
LeMieux lost the race — the only elective office he ever sought. He served as chairman of the Broward Republican Party from 2000 to 2002.
At the same time LeMieux unsuccessfully ran for state representative, Crist failed to unseat Sen. Bob Graham. On the trail, a close political friendship was born.
Over the years, LeMieux helped mold Crist into a fundraising machine. LeMieux was the taskmaster who told Crist to make 50 to 100 calls to donors daily, starting at 5 a.m. And LeMieux helped Crist stay on schedule, calling him "General'' and tugging the shirt of the glad-handing pol to get to the next stop.
Weary from the prolonged statewide races and the nonstop campaign-style of Crist's governorship, LeMieux, a Catholic who missed his wife and their three young sons, retired from Crist's shop.
But he never left Crist's inner circle. LeMieux has represented the governor for free in ongoing gambling negotiations with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. LeMieux negotiated the original compact, struck down by the Florida Supreme Court.
LeMieux notes that he has resisted the temptation of previous chiefs of staff to cash in on close ties to a governor by lobbying.
Still, he has profited. He landed a state Department of Transportation contract and founded a consulting business, MTC Strategies, that earned him $150,000 in fees in the past 13 months from the Republican Party of Florida, federal election records show. LeMieux would not discuss what he did to earn that money.
Republican operative Roger Stone, a LeMieux critic, questioned whether LeMieux was really working pro bono. He noted a Times/Herald report showing that 71 percent of the $912,000 the Seminoles directly gave to the Republican Party since 1996 was given since Crist took over party fundraising in fall 2006.
Stone said that it appeared the Seminoles are "using RPOF as a pass-through'' to pay LeMieux.
"The pattern of giving and the flow of money to LeMieux are deeply concerning," said Stone, who has done political work for South Florida parimutuels opposed to the Seminole compact.
LeMieux dismisses Stone's criticisms as untrue and puzzling, and Republican party chairman Jim Greer called Stone's accusations "absurd."
Both of Crist's Senate opponents, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, a Republican, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, bashed LeMieux's appointment.
Rubio said more conservative candidates should be chosen, and Meek said Crist, who interviewed numerous former lawmakers and attorneys, "treated this process like a mockery."
The Democratic Party's Florida chairwoman, Karen Thurman, called the choice of LeMieux ''cronyism."
But other Democrats, such as former Attorney General Bob Butterworth and U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler of Boca Raton, joined the NRA, Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Everglades Foundation in lauding LeMieux. Democratic Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler introduced LeMieux at a City Hall homecoming Friday.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said he looked forward to a good working relationship with LeMieux, and Sen. Martinez congratulated LeMieux as a "bright, capable, and an accomplished administrator."
Crist said LeMieux simply embodied "public service."
"This is choosing a man who has incredible integrity, great intellect, a tremendous heart for the people who I have enormous trust and confidence in," Crist said.
Times staff writers Shannon Colavecchio, Alex Leary and Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at [email protected]