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THE BUZZ: FLORIDA POLITICS

Governor exhorts everyone to give

By Beth Reinhard, Miami Herald

In Print: Sunday, September 20, 2009

Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan remembers walking through the mall on a weekday afternoon when a familiar name popped up on his cell phone: Charlie Crist.

The governor wanted to talk logistics about a fundraiser for his U.S. Senate campaign. Morgan offered to host a series of events, but Crist preferred a single blowout.

"What's our target?" Morgan asked.

"Let's do a million," Crist replied.

Morgan reeled. "One thing I love about Charlie Crist," he said later, "he never gives you the opportunity to under perform."

After President Barack Obama made history with a vast online network of small donors, Crist raised a record-breaking $4.3 million the old-fashioned way - one big personal check at a time.

He dials the numbers himself. He asks about the wife and kids by name. And then, without flinching, Crist makes "the ask."

I need your help, buddy. I can't do it without you. We're going to bring change to Washington, the Florida way!

From dozens of interviews with Crist's campaign contributors and advisers, a picture emerges of a gracious arm-twister who lavishes donors with praise, solicits their opinions - and then demands to know how much and by when.

When donors come up short - or even if they don't - Crist calls again.

Can you dig deeper?

"Charlie doesn't have any shame," said lobbyist Ron Book.

"Let's just say that you can't say no," said Miami developer Armando Gutierrez.

"He will not let you off the phone until you make the commitment," said Jacksonville insurance executive Michael Hightower.

When Crist suggested the million-dollar goal in Orlando, Morgan responded bluntly: "Are you f - - - - - - out of your mind?"

* * *

Crist's $4.3 million, recession-proof sweep in the first 50 days of his campaign obliterated the record set by Mel Martinez, who collected $1.7 million at the start of his 2004 Senate bid. Nationwide, political giant Rudy Giuliani is the only Senate candidate to have ever outraised Crist in a three-month period.

Crist's campaign expects him to raise half as much in the traditionally slow fundraising quarter that ends this month as he did between April and June.

"It was a stunner," former Florida Republican Party chairman Al Cardenas said of Crist's fundraising debut. "I didn't think doing that amount of money in this environment was humanly possible."

Does his success come from his sheer willpower to call as many as 200 people on a Monday morning? The nerve to hit up total strangers and even political adversaries? A year-round regimen of calling donors on federal holidays?

Or maybe it's this: He's the most powerful politician in the nation's fourth-largest state. Millions of dollars change hands, public policy is enshrined, and judicial appointments are sealed with a flick of his Sharpie pen.

"He's a popular, sitting governor, and many believe his victory in the Senate race is unquestionable," said Cardenas, a lobbyist with a long client list in Tallahassee who passed over his one-time protege, former House Speaker Marco Rubio of Miami, to endorse Crist.

Critics say the governor's fervid fundraising - which began just 17 months after his inauguration and averages $86,000 a day - has gotten in the way of his day job.

* * *

Closed-door fundraisers are slipped between made-for-television appearances at hospitals, schools and firehouses, leaving voters with the impression of a small-town mayor instead of a career politician married to a New York businesswoman.

Local television viewers recently got a glimpse of Crist and Monroe County Commissioner Mario Di Gennaro in shirt sleeves, wading into the ocean to release a rehabilitated, 280-pound sea turtle. Hours later, after the camera crew was gone, Crist sat down to a $1,000-per-person dinner at the commissioner's Tuscan-style, waterfront home.

Last week, Crist paused to ask a bellman's name before striding into the glamorous Fontainebleau hotel on Miami Beach.

"Charles," replied the 32-year-old in a white uniform jacket. "Me too!'' Crist exclaimed, grasping the hand of his newest supporter.

Crist works hard at creating a feeling of intimacy at a time when politics is increasingly conducted via e-mail, social networking sites and credit card transactions.

Even Rubio, who collected only $340,000 between April and June, outraised the governor online, $140,000 to $51,885.

Crist is the rare politician who prefers a flip-phone to a BlackBerry. He shuns e-mail, volunteers his phone number and handwrites thank-you notes. Donors clamor for the personal attention.

Miami lawyer Manny Kadre remembers Crist calling when his wife was in labor. Have her call me when the baby is born. Rodney Barreto, chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, got a text from the governor when he took his son to orientation weekend at the University of Florida. Tell Bradley, best of luck.

In person, Crist can work a room - without looking over anyone's shoulders.

"He makes you feel like the only thing on his mind at that moment is you," Barreto said. "It's one on one, with total eye contact and attention."

Democrats get the same treatment, earning Crist raves for bipartisanship while quietly swelling his fundraising pool.

The day after Democrat Rod Smith lost the 2006 gubernatorial primary, Crist placed a sympathetic call to one of the campaign's top money men, lawyer Danny Ponce. Crist was also one of the first to call Ponce after his father died.

In January 2008, the governor appointed the diehard Gator fan to the University of Florida's board of trustees.

"He practices politics in a very personal way, and it's hard to say no," said Ponce. His fundraiser for Crist last week in Gainesville was the first he ever hosted for a Republican.

* * *

Crist's most successful campaign event so far was hosted by some of the state's best-known Democratic trial lawyers, including Morgan. The June 12 cocktail reception at an Orlando hotel and steak dinner at Morgan's home raised about $300,000, approaching Rubio's three-month take.

Crist has raised so much money from so many corners of Florida that it's hard to yoke him to any one special interest group. He's beholden to no one and to everyone.

Asked how many phone numbers are saved in his cell phone, Crist said, "Not enough." He laughed. "Always need more. Got to reach out."

He added, "I'm blessed to have dear friends and I like to work hard. It's that simple. . . . I love people. I love to talk to them about everything."

Crist's fundraising zeal more than compensates for the lack of a name-brand political consultant. His finance director, Dane Eagle, is a 26-year-old rookie who carried his bags during the 2006 campaign.

Crist's former campaign manager, recently appointed U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, recalls urging the new candidate for governor on a Sunday to reach 50 supporters the next day. Crist made 200 calls between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m., waking many donors out of their beds.

"It not only got the job done but it created a buzz. We raised $1 million at our first event, which was unheard of," LeMieux said.

The governor leaves nothing to chance. He once urged a donor to send a check to his home address in St. Petersburg, making it hard to weasel out of the pledge. He pushed a businessman on vacation to get his assistant to wire money from his bank, recalled Vivian Myrtetus, a former spokeswoman for the governor.

"He's relentless. He doesn't take the first answer," she said. "If they say no the first time, that doesn't mean they get crossed off the list."

* * *

For someone who raises so much cash, Crist appears to lavish little on himself. He eats one small meal a day. He pays off his only credit card every month. He frequently flies commercial, and his campaign pays only three full-time employees and an accounting firm.

"Don't be surprised to see him sitting in 23C and staying at the Radisson," said Miami political consultant Carlos Curbelo. "He takes the time to talk to every single person who crosses his path."

Morgan, the Orlando trial lawyer, was walking past the Dippin' Dots ice cream kiosk at the Seminole Town Center Mall on the day Crist called about the upcoming fundraiser.

"Hold on," Morgan told Crist, "The Dippin' Dots woman is trying to talk to me."

"Put her on," Crist said.

Morgan did. "I just got you another vote," he told Crist after retrieving his phone from the delighted purveyor of flash-frozen beads of ice cream.

Crist didn't pause. "Make sure you invite her to the fundraiser."

Miami Herald staff writer Cammy Clark contributed to this report.

[Last modified: Sep 19, 2009 11:15 PM]

The not-so-public Mrs. Charlie Crist

By Steve Bousquet and Shannon Colavecchio, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

In Print: Sunday, September 20, 2009

TALLAHASSEE

She's the first lady most Floridians never see. Nine months after Carole Rome married Gov. Charlie Crist before hundreds of guests in downtown St. Petersburg, the woman once so visible in the Hamptons now cautiously tiptoes around the limelight. Former first ladies Columba Bush and Rhea Chiles championed the arts or the well-being of children, but Mrs. Crist has yet to embrace a popular cause to improve life in Florida. "This is all so new for me - the political, public life," Mrs. Crist said Saturday, holding hands with her husband in the lobby of a Gainesville hotel, before heading to the UF-Tennessee football game. "So I just wanted to be sure to take it slow and be sure that before I take on too much, that whatever I do that I can be effective and feel good about it." Her infrequent appearances as first lady include attending a holiday party for foster children and a Menorah lighting at the Governor's Mansion less than two weeks after the December 2008 wedding; welcoming the king and queen of Spain in an official visit to Pensacola in February, watching Gov. Crist give his State of the State speech to the Legislature in March; and joining him at a Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce event in May.

She has joined the Republican governor at several fundraisers for his U.S. Senate campaign, including Friday at the Gainesville home of Democratic lawyer Danny Ponce, whom Crist appointed to the UF board of trustees. But she has not hosted a state event since April, when she and the governor invited foster children to the mansion for an annual Easter egg hunt.

Gov. and Mrs. Crist say they divide their time between his rented condo in downtown St. Petersburg, her home on tony Fisher Island in Miami, and the Governor's Mansion in Tallahassee, where he typically lives during the week. It's unclear how much of that time is spent together.

Last week, after the Times/Herald started asking about her public schedule, Mrs. Crist unexpectedly accompanied the governor to a school visit in Miami's Little Haiti. She was asked if she would do more as first lady in the future.

"I hope to, yes. I do the best I can. I try," said Mrs. Crist, 39.

A Georgetown University graduate and longtime New York businesswoman, Mrs. Crist has skipped high-profile annual events that traditionally were the province of former first ladies.

When Gov. Crist, 53, inducted three new members into the Florida Women's Hall of Fame in March, an event that drew some 300 guests to Tallahassee, Mrs. Crist was not there. Last Monday, in the courtyard outside the Capitol building, Gov. Crist attended the annual Missing Children's Day ceremony, handing a yellow rose to each family member of a missing or murdered child. His wife was not there.

Asked why Mrs. Crist did not attend the missing children's event, Gov. Crist said: "Because she's with our children," a reference to her two daughters from a previous marriage to jet company owner Todd Rome.

Rome said the girls, 12-year-old Jessica and 11-year-old Skylar, live with him in New York, where they attend a private, all-girls school.

"She sees the children every other weekend," he said. "We live in New York City, and she lives in Florida. I don't follow her schedule."

Charitable intents

The governor's official Web site features a page titled "Meet the First Lady," which details her New York upbringing and her successful education and business career. It notes that "as Florida's First Lady, Carole will focus on the state's most critical issues, as well as continuing her philanthropic work."

But so far, that philanthropy has been mostly elsewhere.

In New York, Mrs. Crist has been active in raising money for foster children through events like "ARTrageous," a celebrity auction she and Gov. Crist attended in May 2008 to benefit the Edwin Gould Services for Children and Families in New York. While married to Rome, she was known for hosting charity galas and other events in New York City and the Hamptons.

At the mansion holiday party for foster children shortly after their wedding, Mrs. Crist told reporters that she planned to use her role as first lady in a positive way - for children in particular.

She echoed that sentiment Wednesday at the Miami school.

"There are many great, worthy causes," she said. "But first and foremost, I believe children, education, helping our children, doing whatever we can to support them and love them and lift them, and whatever I can do to be a part of that and move that forward and keep us moving, Florida getting to the top in the country is what I'm very eager to do."

'Pace yourself'

Unlike most first ladies, Mrs. Crist had no exposure to Florida politics before marrying the governor. And she chose as a spouse the ambitious, can't-sit-still chief executive of the nation's fourth-largest state, who memorably spent part of their brief honeymoon working the phones on an Everglades land acquisition deal.

Like her husband, Mrs. Crist is attractive, upbeat, polite and gracious - and given to sometimes vague answers, delivered with minimum animation or emotion.

On a football Saturday, sitting down to an interview with the Times/Herald, Mrs. Crist wore a light blue polo shirt and tan slacks, while her husband wore a horizontal-striped, dark blue polo shirt and tan slacks.

Mrs. Crist said her priorities are to "be supportive of Charlie and my children."

Describing how she balances a marriage, his responsibilities as governor and U.S. Senate candidate, and two children in New York, Mrs. Crist said: "It's a lot. Don't take on too much, and pace yourself."

"And she does it very well," the governor added.

In recent years, Mrs. Crist has helped run Franco American Novelty Co., a family-owned New York business specializing in exotic Halloween costumes. Her sister, a company vice president, handles day-to-day affairs, while Mrs. Crist weighs in on planning and strategy, she said. Occasionally, she plays tennis and golf.

At her Fisher Island address, accessible only by boat or helicopter, she's registered to vote (Republican) under the name Carole Rome, which also is the name listed on property records showing her ownership of the $3.2 million, 3,690-square-foot condo.

Gov. Crist now spends less time in St. Petersburg -an observation noted by his Bayfront Tower neighbors - and more time in the Miami area with his bride.

"Miami is beautiful and I have grown to appreciate it more than I ever have before, thanks to Carole," Gov. Crist said.

Mrs. Crist said she is most often in Tallahassee during the spring legislative session and during the winter holidays, when the official residence is a popular spot for receptions.

With her husband on a frenetic fundraising pace, one way for Mrs. Crist to see him is at those fundraisers. Last week, they slipped away for a one-hour jaunt in Gov. Crist's boat, docked in St. Petersburg.

"It really just settles us. It makes us very happy," she said.

The governor said his wife is "tremendously understanding of what I do - more than I ever could have imagined."

Impromptu appearance

People who meet Mrs. Crist invariably rave.

"I've only met her a couple of times, but she seems to be very charming, delightful and engaged," said former Tallahassee City Commissioner Allan Katz, a Democratic fundraiser who attended a December Hanukkah reception hosted by the Crists at the Governor's Mansion. "She creates a very warm impression."

During her visit with the governor last week to Toussaint L'Ouverture Elementary in Miami, she was animated, applauding students, making a thumbs-up gesture and mouthing "Wow!"

The Crists held hands as he gave students a pep talk about hurricane preparedness.

The media advisory for the governor's visit, released the previous evening to reporters, made no mention of Mrs. Crist's attendance. Media advisories for previous events that she attended specifically noted the first lady would be there with the governor. The press release issued after the visit also did not note her.

"I was conveniently in the area and it sounded like a really great opportunity to come and visit with the kids," Mrs. Crist said as the event wrapped up. "I just enjoy being with the kids to learn more about what they are doing."

Before reporters could ask more questions, the governor said, "C'mon, sweetie," grabbed her hand and walked her away.

The two were spotted shopping at Bloomingdale's later that afternoon, when Gov. Crist's schedule had him doing "work and call time."

Historic comparison

In the state that her husband will govern for 16 more months, Mrs. Crist has yet to embrace a public cause. That sets her apart from her predecessors, said historian Patricia Clements.

The wives of Jeb Bush, Lawton Chiles, Bob Graham and Claude Kirk used the role of first lady to champion issues ranging from elder care to volunteerism and the arts, Clements said. Columba Bush also did a lot of work for the historic Mission San Luis in Tallahassee, and she was an advocate for substance abuse treatment and education, Clements said.

"The role of first lady is such an opportunity for service and I think most of them have done it," said Clements, who is editing a book on Florida first ladies. "It's an opportunity because people want to please the first lady, and they want to please the governor."

She said Mrs. Crist is different from her predecessors in many ways, given her corporate background and the timing of when she became first lady - two years into his term, and just months before he made official his plans to run for the U.S. Senate.

"They weren't married when he ran for office, and even with the influence of the office it would be hard for her to start a foundation or a group with only a year or so left," Clements said.

Katz said anyone who expects a first lady to just hold onto the past traditions of tea parties and such is not necessarily being fair or realistic.

"We're living in a different time," Katz said. "I think anyone who thinks otherwise is just kind of living in the past."

Allure of big city

Mrs. Crist does not have a staff person assigned to help manage her schedule or events, unlike most former first ladies. On occasion, she has asked the governor's office to e-mail her a copy of his schedule for events she considered attending.

Mrs. Crist occasionally exchanges e-mails with staffers on travel, events and matters such as her official bio on the National Governors Association spouses' Web site.

Last month, she tried to coordinate the governor's schedule to include an event in Palm Beach for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. "Pls. read below," Mrs. Crist wrote to chief of staff Eric Eikenberg. "I spoke to Governor. He is interested. Let's try to coordinate a date for lunch with something else in Palm Beach in September if we can."

From the moment she and Gov. Crist got engaged, there was political and media speculation that the marriage was largely a calculated political move aimed at making him more attractive as a national candidate. At the time, he was in the running to be Republican Sen. John McCain's vice presidential nominee, so a storyline of the lifelong bachelor finally meeting his match had appeal.

The first lady's rare public appearances in the state capital have fueled a perception that she prodded her husband to forgo a re-election bid in favor of a run for U.S. Senate and possible move to the more fashionable nation's capital. Gov. Crist maintains she voiced no such preference.

"The buzz has always been that she would prefer Washington, D.C., to Tallahassee," said Democratic state Sen. Dave Aronberg. "She went to Georgetown University. She's used to living in big cities."

Mrs. Crist called Tallahassee "a great town, very exciting," but her eyes brightened when she was asked about being able to live in Washington.

"I think it would be great. It's a fabulous city," she said, as her husband interjected: "But we've got to win first."

Times/Herald staff writers Beth Reinhard and Marc Caputo and St. Petersburg Times staff writer Mary Jane Park contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at sbousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263. Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at scolavecchio@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts

First lady Carole Crist's events

At the request of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau, the governor's press office prepared this list of events attended by Mrs. Crist as first lady.

Dec. 21: Holiday book drive event, Governor's Mansion, Tallahassee; Menorah lighting, Governor's Mansion, Tallahassee.

Dec. 24: Tallahassee Senior Center visit.

Jan. 20: National Governor's Association breakfast, Washington, D.C.; President-elect Barack Obama's swearing-in ceremony, Washington, D.C.; President Barack Obama's inaugural parade, Washington, D.C.

Feb. 19: Royal visit by His Majesty King Juan Carlos I

and Her Majesty Queen Sophia of Spain: legislative breakfast and greeting with governor, Pensacola Beach; Fort George wreath-laying ceremony, history-marker ceremony, visit to T.T. Wentworth Museum and luncheon, Pensacola; VIP reception in honor of king and queen of Spain followed by dinner, Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables.

Feb. 22: Reception honoring the nation's governors, White House, Washington, D.C.

Feb. 23: Session at U.S. Supreme Court, Washington, D.C.; spouses' luncheon with first lady Michelle Obama, Washington, D.C.

Feb. 24: Governor's Baseball Dinner, Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg.

Feb. 25: Florida Bankers Association dinner, JW Marriott, Miami.

Feb. 26: Scripps Florida grand opening, Jupiter.

March 3: State of the state address, the Capitol, Tallahassee; state of the state barbecue, Governor's Mansion.

March 4: Legislative spouses luncheon, Governor's Mansion.

March 10: Governor's Symphony, Governor's Mansion.

March 30: Alonzo Mourning jersey retirement, American Airlines Arena, Miami.

April 8: Easter egg hunt, Governor's Mansion.

April 9: Tallahassee Memorial Hospital 26th annual Golden Gala, Tallahassee.

April 11: Universal Health Care open house, the Coliseum, St. Petersburg.

May 7: Clearwater Chamber of Commerce roundtable; Florida Council of 100 dinner, Sandpearl Resort, Clearwater Beach.

Aug. 19: Visit to Boeing Cecil Field facility, Jacksonville.

Sept. 16: Hurricane preparedness school visit, Toussaint L'ouverture Elementary, Miami.

[Last modified: Sep 19, 2009 11:12 PM]

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