The most consequential moment in U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist’s short career in Washington came by accident.
Crist didn’t expect his questioning of Attorney General William Barr on April 9 would be a breakthrough moment for frustrated Congressional Democrats. He didn’t have any inside knowledge from Special Counsel Robert Mueller nor was he trying to set a trap for Barr to mislead Congress.
What he wanted to know was this: Why were news outlets reporting that members of Mueller’s team were upset with Barr’s four-page summary of their investigation into Russian election influence and obstruction by President Donald Trump?
“It was an innocent question,” Crist recently told the Tampa Bay Times.
A month later, Barr’s response to Crist has come under renewed scrutiny. Barr said he didn’t know what those reports were referencing. But it recently came out that Mueller sent a letter to Barr on March 27 warning that the attorney general had confused the public and risked undermining confidence in their work.
Now there are calls from Democrats, including Crist, for Barr to resign. Others have suggested Barr should be impeached for lying to Congress.
“Why he didn’t want to be straight up and honest on April 9 is beyond me,” Crist said.
Crist may have stumbled into this flashpoint, but that he was in position to ask the question is a testament to how the St. Petersburg Republican-turned-Democrat is thriving in his new party.
Crist’s quizzing of Barr came during a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful committees in Congress. Crist earned a coveted spot on the committee in just his third year in Washington, no small feat.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is known to value loyalty and seniority. Crist — a former Republican governor now in his sophomore season — is an unusual candidate to win her trust.
But Crist seems to have done just that. Recently, Crist was named a regional vice chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s House campaign apparatus. In a statement to the Times, Pelosi praised Crist as “an effective, esteemed voice for hard-working Florida families and communities across the country.”
“His commitment to bipartisanship and integrity in government, together with his decades of leadership of such a critical state, make him a powerful and deeply respected voice on the Appropriations Committee,” she added.
Crist has been a reliable Democrat since joining Congress in 2017. For example, he scored 100 percent on Planned Parenthood’s legislative scorecard the past two years, while getting zeros from conservative groups. Crist earlier this year said he was “very comfortable” as a Democrat.
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His moderate temperament fits well with Democratic messaging under Pelosi, who has focused her party on so-called kitchen table issues like protecting health care, lowering drug prices and improving wages. It’s a lane where Crist is most adept. He rarely veers into contentious positions, like Medicare for All, held by members of the more liberal new wave of Congressional Democrats.
Crist narrowly won his St. Petersburg-based congressional seat from Republican incumbent David Jolly in one of the most closely watched House races of 2016. He entered a Washington where Republicans controlled all the levers of power. He languished through a nondescript first term as a freshman in the minority party.
Accomplishments were more isolated to local affairs. Crist called for an investigation into CareerSource Pinellas after reports of fraud by the Times and organized community meetings to address St. Petersburg’s car theft epidemic. He also co-founded the civility caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers committed to improving the rhetoric in politics.
Crist did win this distinction: He got his bills out of committee the least often compared to the rest of the Florida Delegation, according to GovTrack, a website that scores Congress on such metrics.
Now in the majority since November, Democrats are ramping up the pressure on Trump. They are investigating everything from hush money payments from Trump’s campaign to adult film star Stormy Daniels to abuses of security clearances. So far, few of those inquiries have generated more buzz than Crist’s seemingly innocuous question to Barr last month.
Republicans have vowed to give Crist a tougher challenge in his next race, labeling Florida District 13 a top target in 2020. There’s reason for their optimism. Trump won Pinellas County in 2016. And Crist’s 2018 opponent, unknown Republican George Buck, garnered 43 percent of the vote despite raising just $35,000. A well-financed candidate may have a better shot.
Jolly said he is “not looking to run” against Crist again in 2020. He has since left the GOP and has become one of the loudest Trump critics on the right.
It’s Jolly, not Crist, who has called for the House to impeach Trump. And Jolly doesn’t expect his former rival to push for impeachment proceedings.
“The most generous thing I can say is Charlie has never taken a tough position on anything and that’s the secret of his success,” said Jolly, a frequent guest on MSNBC. “I wouldn’t expect to see much from him on this, but I also don’t see much from Democratic leadership. I think Nancy Pelosi has already missed the moment on this.”
Crist, though, swiftly called on Barr to resign after Mueller’s letter became public. He also quickly capitalized on his time in the spotlight to help bolster his re-election effort.
As the Barr-Crist exchange became a national story, his campaign sent out a fundraising email asking supports for “resources to keep up the pressure on Barr to hold him accountable for his actions.”
“Keep Charlie in Washington,” the email said, “fighting for the people to ensure justice is carried out.”