TALLAHASSEE — His new fiancee at his side, Gov. Charlie Crist today kicks off an 11-day mission to England, France, Spain and Russia focusing on aerospace, aviation and alternative energy sources, including nuclear power.
Crist's third trade mission as governor is intended to strengthen Florida's ties with Europe while adding depth to his resume as he is mentioned as a possible Republican vice presidential candidate.
Democrats criticize the trip as a costly "junket," but the governor said the work is serious.
"I hope to generate economic opportunities for Florida," Crist said in an interview a few days before he left from Miami.
The trip will include a tour of a nuclear waste processing plant near Paris as well as:
• Meetings with senior officials in the United Kingdom, France and Spain.
• Attendance at a climate change forum in London.
• A ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery, where 9,387 U.S. soldiers are buried.
Crist also will make what he called a "sister city" trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, the namesake of his Florida home town.
"There's an awful lot of Russian investment in Florida real estate," he said. "We want to continue to encourage that."
The 94-person entourage includes top Florida utility executives and a dozen representatives of Enterprise Florida Inc.
EFI, the state's public-private business development arm, is paying travel costs for Crist and other state officials, including a state-employed photographer.
While staff members stay in rooms costing about $500 a night, Crist will stay in suites with work and meeting space that cost as much as $1,800 a night.
The trip comes as growing numbers of Floridians abandon vacations for "stay-cations" to save money. Democrats say it is ill-timed in light of record gas prices and tight government budgets.
"No responsible governor would have the audacity to spend more than $225,000 of the taxpayers' money jet-setting around Europe with his fiancee," said Democratic Party spokesman Eric Jotkoff.
Carole Rome, who accepted Crist's marriage proposal last week, was already on the travel list as a "delegate" representing her New York-based company, a wholesaler of Halloween costumes.
Crist has said it is vital to promote business in Florida in tough times. Enterprise Florida said his trip to Brazil last fall generated more than $300-million in "actual and anticipated" sales, including a 200-job expansion plan by the Brazilian aircraft maker Embraer.
He also will meet with leaders of three major aerospace firms: Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.
On Monday, Crist will inaugurate the Florida Pavilion at the world's second-largest aerospace show, the Farnborough International Air Show. The next day, Crist and Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty will meet with the chairman of Lloyd's of London. "Insurance always is an important issue in Florida, especially as it relates to our storms," Crist said. "So I hope that can be productive and helpful."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.