TAMPA — State Sen. Tom Lee hosted a fundraiser for Charlie Crist at his Brandon home in 1998 when Crist ran against Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Graham. When Lee joined Crist in the Florida Senate in 1996, he says, he admired Republican "Chain Gang Charlie's" gift for public relations and public speaking. Crist introduced Lee to Grover Norquist, the antitax crusader, and tried to persuade his fellow Tampa Bay Republican to sign Norquist's pledge never to raise taxes.
Today, however, Lee lambasts Crist as the embodiment of why the public distrusts elected leaders. And he is leading a campaign to make sure hundreds of thousands of Democratic and independent voters in Florida hear Crist in his own words tout his rock-ribbed conservatism.
More than 1.2 million recorded calls have already reached voters across the state featuring old recordings of Crist when he was a Republican.
This year's Democratic gubernatorial nominee can be heard touting his opposition to gay Floridians adopting children, his support for allowing the Ten Commandments to be displayed in public buildings. The "pro-life Ronald Reagan Republican we can trust" is leaving voicemail messages telling Democrats about his admiration for Sarah Palin and reminding them to vote for him "and the entire Republican ticket."
"I can't think of a place in modern American history where someone has attempt to make such a mockery of the political process through total transformation like this," Lee said of Republican-turned-Democrat Crist. "This guy was either lying to us Republicans when he was encouraging us to support him or he's lying to Democrats now, and somebody needs to hold him accountable."
In an election where winning may be impossible without an energized base, any effort to diminish enthusiasm for Crist among the liberal Democrats of his party could have significant repercussions. But Crist, at a campaign stop in Tampa Thursday, shrugged off Lee's campaign against him and said voters "won't be fooled" by the robocalls featuring Crist's own voice.
Plenty of Democrats aren't so sure, however.
"They are definitely harmful," said Ralph Sterling, a Democratic retiree in Miami Beach who has received several anti-Crist robocalls from Lee's group in recent days. It disturbs him that neither the Crist campaign nor the Democratic Party has responded with its own phone campaign explaining that the recordings of Crist touting his conservatism are from 2006.
"People are definitely hearing these recordings and believe this may be what Crist believes in," Sterling said.
Lee says he is single-handedly raising money for a political committee, "Conservatives," to spread the voice of Republican Crist across Florida. Though he is a Gov. Rick Scott supporter and was considered for Scott's lieutenant governor, Lee said neither the Florida GOP nor the Scott campaign have anything to do with his campaign.
The robocall campaign is less about partisan politics, Lee claims, than honesty. Crist "has failed the litmus test of character and integrity that should be the prerequisite."
Lee's campaign is not entirely honest or transparent either. He did not initially disclose his involvement, and nowhere in the robocalls does it explain when the recordings of Crist were made or that the purpose of the calls is to damage Crist.
"It's dirty tricks, taking something that is almost 10 years old. People are entitled to change their mind," Sterling said.
Lee said he agrees politicians should not be criticized for changing their minds, but that's not what Crist says. Rather, Crist says he became a Democrat because the Republican Party "left me" by moving too far to the right and he considers much of his former party's opposition to Barack Obama to be racially motivated.
"He was the standard-bearer for our party. Our platform was his platform," Lee scoffed. "Don't blame Republicans. We got out, raised money for you, held signs for you. We still have the battle scars on our back from when we supported your campaigns."
Stopping at West Tampa's Al Lopez Park Thursday afternoon as part of a three-day bus tour criticizing Gov. Scott for inadequately funding schools, Crist was asked whether he considers himself the same person who long called himself a Ronald Reagan conservative.
Reagan could not win a primary in today's Republican party, Crist responded. Does he still support displaying the Ten Commandments in public buildings? "I'd have to think about that one."
Clearwater retiree Alvin Ehrenberg received two calls with Crist's voice Wednesday and a third one Thursday. "Did he really say these things?" Ehrenberg asked.
But Ehrenberg said he has no problem with candidates changing their minds over time on issues and resents being "used" by Lee's group.
"It's wrong. They intimated that it was Charlie Crist speaking at the present time," he said.
Lee is also directing Democrats and independents to a new website, charlieinhisownwords.com. The website features the same recordings as well as old mailers by Crist and video clips, including Crist in March 2010 on Fox News pledging that he would remain a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. Weeks later, his campaign foundering against Marco Rubio, Crist dropped out of the GOP and ran instead without party affiliation.
"Unless he's a sociopath, I don't know how this guy looks in the mirror with a straight face," Lee said. "He looked the entirety of America in the face when pinned down as closely as anyone could be pinned down and said he would support the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate."
Crist shrugged off Lee's vitriol as predictable.
"I'm on the other team now," he said.
Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @adamsmithtimes.