Charlie Crist raising money and trying to make nice in Washington

Congressman Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, in his Washington office. (Alex Leary  |  Times)
Congressman Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, in his Washington office. (Alex Leary | Times)
Published June 21, 2017

WASHINGTON — It was dark out and the rookie congressman waited for the police with an aide, a fender bender delaying their trip to the Israeli Embassy, when a trolley full of tourists rolled by.

"Hey, Charlie!" one yelled as others cheered from near the National Mall.

Few politicians in Washington command instant recognizability, yet few have arrived like Rep. Charlie Crist, the former Florida governor with the white hair and perma-tan, a figure once courted by presidential candidates.

Now, after two bruising defeats in campaigns for U.S. Senate and governor that had him cycle through political parties, Crist resets at the bottom, a Democrat without clout in a Republican-dominated town.

"You know, it's been a while for a win, 10 years to be exact," Crist said in an interview from his office, which sports three fans and a cooler full of Tropicana orange juice, though on a recent afternoon he sipped Diet Coke from a paper cup.

"Being governor was great, amazing, never thought it would happen," Crist said. "But it can be lonely sometimes, especially like signing death warrants and that kind of stuff. Here, it's so collegial and most everybody is pretty darn nice, on either side of the aisle. I wish America got to see that more."

WHO IS CHARLIE CRIST: The answer is complicated.

Crist, 60, has long radiated such optimism, driving critics mad, but he's trying to turn it into something. On Thursday he will host an event calling for the establishment of a national day of civility. He's distributing to each member of Congress a bracelet that reads, "Love the golden rule," a replica of one a voter gave him last year.

Crist liked it so much he changed the name of his fishing boat from the GOP-friendly "Freedom" to the more Democratic do-gooder "Golden Rule."

"I think how you comport yourself and the example you set can be infectious. I hope so. Because the country does need that," he said, speaking on the day a gunman opened fire on a group of Republicans practicing for the congressional baseball game.

His Washington career got off to an inauspicious start: missing a vote designed to show support for Israel, losing a top staff member and drawing complaints for being slow to open a district office and not very accessible. Crist filed for divorce in February.

Now he is finding his footing and settling into the routine of being a freshman Democrat with a unique resume.

When President Donald Trump addressed Congress in February, the former governor ran into Sen. John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee in 2008 who considered Crist as his running mate. "He gave me a hug, one that didn't crucify me," Crist said, slyly referencing the embrace he gave to President Barack Obama in 2009. "(McCain) said, 'I want you to know something: You are a friend in need and always will be a friend indeed.' "

Crist is up at 4:30 each morning and swims before returning to read the news at his apartment in Washington's booming Navy Yard neighborhood, where he has developed an affection for Harris Teeter. His days on Capitol Hill are full of meetings, votes and fundraising. "It's almost busier than being governor," said Crist, a member of the Financial Services and Science, Space and Technology committees.

House members, who face election every two years, spend hours a day fundraising and many loathe doing so. Crist has long excelled at it and raised a whopping $720,000 in the first three months of the year. Contributors include Republican lobbyist and longtime friend Brian Ballard, billionaire Jeff Greene, former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Joel Glazer.

"It's pretty frequent, takes time but not more time than working for the people, ever. Ever," Crist said, side-stepping a question about how many hours he devotes to raising money. He drew some criticism for issuing a fundraising email — "Listen, I know our nation's political debates get heated" — before the congressional baseball game.

Crist's haul could scare off a challenger next year and the district leans Democratic, though former Rep. David Jolly says a rematch is "under strong consideration."

"My heart goes out to him on his divorce; it's a terrible thing," Jolly said. "It does seem like since some of the personal life issues have been resolved, he's caught his stride politically. You're seeing more of him. His staff is getting his feet under him."

Trump hosted fundraisers for Crist when he was a Republican — something Marco Rubio tried to use against Trump in the presidential primary — and Crist still has the president's cell phone number, texting congratulations after the election.

"I hope he does well because I love my country," Crist said. "It's sort of different than the way I saw him comport himself 10 years ago. So I'm trying to reserve judgment. It's not what you expect to see out of a United States president."

Crist said there are serious questions about Russian interference in the election but he has refrained from joining liberal Democrats in talk of impeachment. "We need to let the facts play out."

He welcomed Trump's talk of major infrastructure investment but that has been buried in the avalanche of Russia news and the GOP's halting attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. "They seem unable to accomplish very much," Crist said.

Flood insurance is a looming issue and Crist is hopeful something can be worked out. He said he wants to focus on environmental issues and has filed legislation to limit taxes on Social Security benefits. This week he will try to rally lawmakers around his Golden Rule initiative, which builds on a civility pledge most members of the freshman class signed.

"It gives me hope," he said.

Every two years, House rookies enter a lottery to determine office space. Crist pulled No. 50 out of 50, which made him the butt of jokes and exposed the hostility some Republicans still feel. An online headline read: "Karma, baby: Republican traitor Charlie Crist gets the congressional office he deserves."

Crist's office in the Cannon building has disadvantages. The legislative staff isn't connected, for example, requiring a walk outside and past the women's bathroom.

But it's not especially cramped and he now shares a legacy with two freshmen who went on to great things: Lyndon Johnson and Dick Cheney. Crist has their pictures on the wall near one of late Rep. C.W. Bill Young.

Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Contact Alex Leary at Follow @learyreports.