Meet Carole Rome, the governor's fiancee

The governor had the evening planned.

He bought the ring on a Wednesday from a jeweler near Publix in northeast St. Petersburg. He took his date to Ceviche on Beach Drive that evening, and outside were the city lights and the warm breeze off the bay. They would eat tapas and stroll to his apartment, where the 51-year-old bachelor would ask the woman to marry him.

But alas, a couple who live in his building saw them, said hello, and asked if they'd like to come up and watch the Rays play the Red Sox.

The governor did not get his job by disappointing people, so he and his date watched the Rays come from behind with six runs in the seventh inning. By the time it was over, proposing marriage didn't feel quite right.

He waited till morning. She was sitting on the couch when he took a seat beside her.

He checked the clock: a few minutes before 11.

Nine months earlier, they met at an Italian restaurant in New York; five months earlier, he introduced the mystery woman publicly as "my girlfriend."

That morning, July 3, she saw that he was holding a small box. He opened it. She smiled.

With a word — Yes! — Carole Rome became Florida's first fiancee, the curiosity of a state.

Roslyn, N.Y., is picturesque suburbia, sandwiched between Manhattan grit and Hamptons glamor. Strip mall marquees have gold-leafing. Fancy restaurants look like Grandma's house. Even the liquor store has charm.

Roslyn was home to writer Michael Crichton and former Vermont first lady Judith Steinberg Dean.

It was home to Carole Rome, now 38.

She was the last of five babies born to Bob and Margaret Oumano. Carole was a sweet child with pretty brown eyes who toddled around in pink sundresses. She was doted on, captured in photos her older sister showed off at summer camp.

"I was very proud of her," said Michele Oumano Powell, 51.

Bob Oumano operated his father's gag gift business. He loaded boxes and crunched numbers. He pitched hooting owls and whoopee cushions to novelty shops, hoping they'd carry his stock. His kids helped; tales swirl that a young Carole drove the forklift in his warehouse.

He brought home samples — the girls especially loved plastic Hope diamond rings. But at home after his long commute, Bob had little energy for banana peel slapstick.

"We used to call him the unconscious comedian, because he'd make jokes when he didn't even realize," said Carole's sister. "He wasn't really the practical joke type who was testing out new products at home. He worked hard."

At Roslyn High, Carole cheered for the varsity squad in her sweater vest and shoe poms. She made honor society. She had big bangs and 1980s power curls.

She wrote cryptic notes under her 1987 senior yearbook picture — WOW!WhatATrip! RHShasNEverSeen Such A WildBunch!... Mom&Dad:Thx4Evrythg-URThe Best!LY!

She left for Georgetown University, unsure what to become. She earned a business and accounting degree, graduating with honors. She moved to Manhattan to start her career, and in 1993 married Todd Rome, now president of a private jet company, Blue Star Jets. Three years later, they had their first daughter, Jessica. In 1998, they had Skylar.

Carole juggled family life with work. She was an auditor at an accounting firm. She didn't love it. She worked in high-end real estate. She didn't love it.

Her father, ailing from heart problems, wanted Carole to run the family business, Franco American Novelty Co. She was dynamic and high energy. She was the baby. She could carry on the legacy.

Bob Oumano died in 2000. Before, he gave the family his blessing to take the company in a new direction, focused on costumes.

Carole dived in. She invented a slogan: "Where Fashion Meets Halloween." She designed figure-flattering costumes, including a red goddess dress. A sequined child's devil outfit became a top seller.

Dressed exquisitely in suits, she strutted into the company's modest office in Glendale, a quirky Queens neighborhood surrounded by cemeteries. She got her hands dirty, unpacking boxes. Once, while feet of snow fell outside, she stayed overnight working out finances.

"She'll get you motivated," said David Arce, Franco's warehouse manager. "On days that were real hot, she'd say, 'Go get ice, get sodas, get water. … Get the air-conditioning on, buy fans.' Anything to keep the morale going."

Under her lead, the company turned in record profits.

Her life outside was lavish. She and Todd Rome owned homes all over New York City. They built a townhouse on Manhattan's exclusive Upper East Side. They had a 10,000-square-foot vacation home in Southampton. Carole decorated it with a palette of pale blue, white and silver.

The couple threw fundraisers for the Red Cross and other charities, raising thousands of dollars by auctioning trips, cruises, jewelry, paintings, a Gucci bag, a diamond bracelet.

Carole hobnobbed with Tommy Hilfiger, John McEnroe, Patty Smyth, Kelly Clarkson, the Hilton family. She appeared in the society pages wearing flowing baby doll dresses she designed with Erisa Dilo, design director at Franco.

"She loves custom-made dresses," Dilo said. "She loves Roberto Cavalli, which is also my favorite designer, which I think is why Carole and I click. That's why when I design for her, she loves it."

She frequented Nobu, a New York restaurant co-owned by Robert De Niro, and Pink Elephant, a bar that offers Krug Clos du Mesnil champagne for $2,100. She had her long, wavy hair styled on Madison Avenue.

• • •

The governor and his fiancee sit for an interview in a comfy poolside room on a private island south of Miami Beach, where the sand is imported from the Bahamas and caged toucans squawk under a giant banyan tree. You can reach Fisher Island only by boat, helicopter or ferry, and according to the 2000 census, its 1,400 residents had the highest per capita income in the United States.

Carole Rome has a 3,690-square-foot, $4.1-million condo.

She moved from New York to Florida with her children in 2006, when her marriage was in trouble.

"In a million years, I never understood why she wanted to move out of New York, except for what she said, which is, she wanted a simpler life for her children," said Carole's friend Jill Zarin, a cast member on the Bravo reality series The Real Housewives of New York City. "She wanted to slow down, which is funny, because now she's on a treadmill."

In their Florida divorce file, Todd Rome alleges that Carole took the kids to Miami without his blessing, lured him to Florida to work out the marriage — and then served him with divorce papers.

He says Carole became inexplicably unhappy with their $6-million Upper East Side townhouse. She wasn't happy with any of their homes, he says.

"No sooner was a new home built, bought or rented, but that defendant became dissatisfied with it," Todd Rome says in the records. "In the first 11 years of our marriage, we lived for an average period of one to two years in a succession of no less than five apartments and three houses. … We also have had a total of four vacation houses in the Hamptons."

Todd Rome, who is now engaged to be married, did not return calls for an interview.

As news of the divorce spread through society circles, so did whispers that he couldn't abide Carole's spending. The society press delighted in the rumor.

"That's just gossip," said Zarin. "The truth is, I like to shop, so do you; everyone likes to shop. She gives a lot of money to charity. … She doesn't just write a check. She does a lot of the work at these events. Carole Rome has no problem rolling up her sleeves."

• • •

Florida's wedding of the year will most likely be in the spring. The newlyweds will divide their time among Fisher Island, Crist's rented condo in St. Petersburg, and the Governor's Mansion in Tallahassee. Carole and her former husband share custody of their children, according to Todd Rome's lawyer. They go to a private school in Miami.

"The girls are wonderful," Crist said, "and I think the world of them and I look forward to spending a lot of time with them."

In the hourlong interview on Fisher Island, Crist and his fiancee never stop touching. He rubs her hands and her back and her shoulders. She squeezes his thigh and stares at his face.

"We just kind of hit it off from the get-go," he says. "It was classic."

They met in late September, when mutual friends got them together to talk about GOP fundraising at an Italian restaurant in New York, a romantic place called Campagnola, on the Upper East Side. They sat next to each other.

She thought he was handsome and sincere. He thought she was beautiful, sweet, smart.

They talked about politics and sports. They hit a club after dinner and listened to music. They ended the night with a kiss. She gave him her number, told him to call.

The next day, he had to deliver a lecture at Bill Clinton's Global Climate Initiative, but he couldn't get the woman out of his head.

Crist was faced with the most human of challenges: How long should I wait before I call?

He saw her again that Friday, at a fundraiser in South Florida.

There was an immediate connection.

"I felt it," he says.

"I did, too," she says.

"She was so friendly, so sweet, and so knowledgeable about a lot of stuff," he says. "It was very nice to find someone so beautiful, so brilliant, and so sweet as well. So I fell in love."

"I find him to be the most handsome man," she says. "I just so enjoyed his personality, his charm, his grace, his goodness."

They began seeing each other more regularly, and the news media eventually caught on. But the girlfriend remained mostly a mystery.

• • •

"We're not identical," the governor says, "but I've never met someone more like myself in a woman than Carole."

This from a man known for eating one meal a day, a man who rents an apartment and carries no credit card debt, a man whose entire net worth — $457,262 — might not be enough to buy him a nice condo in any of the neighborhoods his fiancee is used to living in. Is this a case of opposites attracting?

"My parents were very simple people," she says, "and always instilled that in their children, and I always valued that. And that really is my core and my roots. Meeting Charlie, and seeing the life of a public servant and somebody who's so selfless and is not driven by material things and by money, and is so simple and so humble and so pure, was really something that was very attractive to me, and it reminded me very much of my upbringing."

She says Crist has changed her. "Maybe it's more accurate to say I'm getting back to my roots and my solid foundation of who I really am and what's really important in life," she says.

So was hobnobbing with the rich and famous insincere?

"I don't have any regrets whatsoever," she says. "I think in life it's important to experience all things. But at the end of the day you need to come to terms with who you are and what really fulfills you and inspires you, and I have found great inspiration and fulfillment through Charlie."

She says she loves St. Petersburg. She loves eating shrimp salad at Fish Tales and dining at Fred's at the Vinoy and going out on Crist's boat on Tampa Bay.

"I find it to be the most beautiful, wholesome, wonderful community," she says. "I love St. Petersburg."

"Can't beat the 'burg," Crist says.

Crist has heard skeptics say his wedding proposal was politically motivated. He has heard the speculation that he's marrying to make himself a more appealing vice presidential candidate. He says those people are wrong.

"It's all about being in love with Carole."

They stand, hold hands, walk outside near the pool. Pausing in front of a bougainvillea, they embrace. Then, as a photographer snaps pictures, they kiss.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857. Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Meet Carole Rome, the governor's fiancee 07/12/08 [Last modified: Saturday, July 19, 2008 10:10am]

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