ST. PETERSBURG — Gov. Charlie Crist traversed Pinellas County on Monday, reassuring hoteliers, government leaders and boat captains that he would help them keep the Tampa Bay area's tourism economy strong.
Proclaiming Florida's seafood "oil-free," Crist dug into a $14.99 shrimp platter, hold the baked potato, at Leverock's Seafood House in southern St. Petersburg before a gaggle of TV cameras, potential voters and local politicians.
"Fresh Florida seafood," Crist said, reaching for a napkin to dab his mouth. "You can't beat it."
With the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico threatening Florida's beaches and, subsequently, the livelihoods of area business owners who depend on pristine shores, Crist arrived in his hometown county with an arsenal of firm handshakes, sympathetic looks and encouraging words designed to ease local fears.
At a meeting with roughly two dozen fishermen at Latitudes Restaurant in Madeira Beach, Crist patted charter boat captain Travis Palladeno on the arm as Palladeno shared his frustrations over the expanded fishing ban in the gulf.
"We just want to fish," Palladeno said.
Crist, dressed casually in athletic shoes and a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission shirt, pledged that someone would review the boundaries of the fishing ban to ensure they were warranted.
"I don't know how to plug a hole," Crist said. "But we can all work together to make sure the people are made whole."
It was phrase he echoed later in the day when he addressed a roomful of state elected officials, local mayors, hotel owners and restaurateurs during a roundtable discussion at the TradeWinds Island Grand resort in St. Pete Beach.
They complained of canceled room reservations, anxious tenants, hesitant customers and the growing perception that every Florida beach is awash in oil sludge.
Patricia Hubbard, owner of the Friendly Fisherman restaurant in Madeira Beach, bemoaned a 32 percent drop in sales this past weekend compared to the same time last year. She predicted that her business, family-run for four generations, might not survive the oil spill.
"We were making it, we were surviving, but we were surviving on a wing of prayer," she said. "And BP has clipped our wings."
Crist said he was committed to holding a special session to consider a constitutional ban on oil drilling in Florida waters. He said a session could occur as early as July.
"It is now abundantly clear what we do not need to do, and that's continuing poking holes in the bottom of that gulf, because we don't know how to handle it," Crist said.
Rep. Ron Saunders, the Key West Democrat who is set to be the next minority leader, was with the governor and said the holdup is incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon, who had previously pushed for drilling off Florida's shores. "People don't want to have to flip-flop on their previous vote," Saunders said.
Cannon and other House leaders have said a constitutional ban is not needed. Florida law already bans drilling in Florida waters.
But that's not good enough, Crist said.
"I grew up here, right here," Crist told the crowd at the TradeWinds. "And I love this beach as much as you do."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.