TAMPA — Charlie Crist, the lifelong Republican who could be the Democrats' best hope at taking back the Governor's Mansion in 2014, told activists in Tampa Saturday night that his old party has changed to the point that he's far more comfortable as a big-tent Democrat.
"It's about blacks, it's about whites, it's about gays, it's about wherever you come from, you're welcome in this party," said the former Republican governor, recounting how former Democratic Gov. LeRoy Collins stood beside civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. despite political repercussions such as the ones Crist faced after embracing President Barack Obama and his stimulus package.
Crist's eight-minute speech drew an enthusiastic response from the 300 activists gathered for the annual Kennedy-King fundraising gala for the Hillsborough County Democratic Party. It was a healthy, but hardly overwhelming crowd that suggested Crist can't expect a coronation should he jump into the Democratic race for governor.
"Everybody's just kind of watching, but I think there's genuine enthusiasm for Bill Nelson," said former state Education Commissioner and one-time U.S. Senate candidate Betty Castor. "Everybody at this point is just watching."
Hillsborough Democratic state committeeman Alan Clendenin, vice chairman of the state party, told the activists at the Tampa Convention Center to expect a gubernatorial primary and that it will be healthy for the party.
"Everybody's curious. They want to know what his vision is, what he has to say about some of his past positions," said Clendenin.
In his brief remarks, Crist did not explain his shifting political stands, such as his newfound support for gay marriage.
But while some Democrats are downright hostile to the notion of Crist as the party's nominee, it was easy Saturday night to find longtime Crist acquaintances to defend him.
"Having known Charlie personally for so many years, I'm not at all afraid of him," said Democratic political consultant Ana Cruz of Tampa. "I've always told him he was a Democrat in wolf's clothing."
Darden Rice, a gay Democratic activist running for St. Petersburg City Council, agreed: "When I was just a student at USF in 1989 or 1990, I called Charlie Crist to support a ban on offshore oil drilling. I remember, in my apartment at USF, Charlie Crist called me back and completely supported the ban on drilling, and every time after remembered who I am."
The most poignant moment of the night came when former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who ran for governor in 2010, thanked those who gathered to support her after the sudden death of her husband, former Democratic gubernatorial nominee Bill McBride, in December.
Sink, who barely lost to Gov. Rick Scott in 2010, has downplayed but not ruled out another run. She suggested, like several other Democrats Saturday night, that Crist had more explaining to do about his political evolution. "He has to lay out his journey," she said. "I think he has to lay out what his values are."
Adam Smith can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: The photo captions have been updated to reflect the appearance with Charlie Crist of former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman. She was incorrectly identified in an earlier version.