Charlie Crist missed his calling as a riverboat gambler.
Our governor stunned everybody last year with his risky, last-minute endorsement of John McCain for the Republican presidential nomination. Now, he has gone with his gut again and tapped his best friend and former campaign manager to fill the term of outgoing Sen. Mel Martinez, shocking much of Florida's political world in the process.
"I'm practically speechless," longtime Republican strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich said after hearing George LeMieux beat out eight other finalists to be appointed Florida's next U.S. senator. "George LeMieux is a great guy and very capable.
"But you've got a list that has a former U.S. attorney (Roberto Martinez) who was the go-to guy of three governors; you've got the mayor of a major city, a chancellor and university president (John Delaney); you've got a guy who won repeated statewide elections (Jim Smith); you've got a guy who served decades in Congress (Mike Bilirakis and Clay Shaw). And you pick George?"
In terms of looking out for Crist's political interests in Washington for the next 16 months, nobody was a safer pick than LeMieux. Crist's former chief of staff — a self-described "Charlie Crist Republican" — would never buck the governor's wishes and has a deep grasp of Florida issues.
But the appointment immediately fueled widespread grumbling among conservative activists and party regulars raising questions about potential LeMieux conflicts of interest and probably giving a boost to Marco Rubio, who is challenging Crist for the 2010 U.S. Senate Republican nomination.
"The base is going to be very concerned. There is no question this will help Marco Rubio,'' said Pasco County Republican state committee member Bill Bunting. "He took a good, personal friend and said, 'You can hold this seat,' when you needed someone there with legislative experience."
Crist is trouncing former state House Speaker Rubio in polls and money-raising, and the LeMieux selection suggests Crist is unworried about his challenger or the growing number of local Republican parties holding informal votes that back Rubio. This was not a pick to win over the conservative base.
"For mysterious reasons in the last couple years he seems to have vacated his loyalty to his base, and certainly there's a lot of fence-mending that needs to be accomplished,'' said Lee County Republican chairman Gary Lee, doubting that LeMieux's selection would help mend fences.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush, seen as a long-shot potential endorser of Rubio, kept mum on LeMieux's appointment Friday. One has to wonder what he thinks about the political operative, who in 2006 urged Crist to snub a joint appearance with President George W. Bush, suddenly being anointed U.S. senator.
It's not like LeMieux will be totally out of his league in the Senate. He is a bright, hardworking student of policy, and he understands bare-knuckled politics as well as anyone. His allies waged tough, stealth campaigns spreading doubts about most of the other names on Crist's short list.
"From the standpoint of looking for someone who can do a lot in a year and a half, he's a guy who's going to know everything before he gets there,'' said Everglades Foundation CEO Kirk Fordham, a former senior congressional staffer.
Since leaving the governor's office, LeMieux became chairman of a law firm that holds a lucrative contract with the state Department of Transportation and that represents U.S. Sugar in a massive and controversial land deal with Florida.
"I know his soul,'' Crist said Friday.
For his sake, Crist better hope he has a full grasp on LeMieux's financial relationships, too.
LeMieux is not a registered lobbyist, but he has long faced whispers that he is an unregistered influence-trader because of his relationship with the governor. Critics have also questioned his work in negotiating the Seminole Tribe of Florida gambling agreement on Crist's behalf, first as Crist's chief of staff and more recently as a pro bono private attorney.
While the Seminole Tribe was donating tens of thousands of dollars to the state GOP, the party was paying LeMieux's consulting firm tens of thousands of dollars. At the same time LeMieux helped negotiate a deal that skeptics said was too generous to the Seminole Tribe.
LeMieux must file a financial disclosure return in 30 days that may shed more light on how lucrative his ties to Crist have been.
Ultimately, every name Crist was considering had a down side, politically or practically, and LeMieux at least offered unquestioned loyalty and political smarts.
Friday tends to be the day public officials release news they want to quickly fade away into the weekend. Charlie Crist has long shown terrific political instincts, but we won't know for a while whether Crist's smarter gut call was to appoint LeMieux or to announce it on a Friday.
Adam Smith can be reached at [email protected]