Meet Chris King, the Christian, liberal longshot running for Florida governor

Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Chris King gives a campaign speech at the Florida Young Democrats Convention in Tampa on May 20, 2017. (OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times)
Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Chris King gives a campaign speech at the Florida Young Democrats Convention in Tampa on May 20, 2017. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
Published June 5, 2017

WINTER PARK — Chris King, a 38-year-old lawyer, bleeding-heart businessman, Harvard graduate and Jesus-loving philanthropist, by all accounts is gifted and creative. But it's not clear he fully grasps how nuts it is to throw much of his family's nest egg into a campaign for Florida governor when nobody knows who he is and he has virtually no experience in government or campaigns.

"People might confuse his face for just another businessman, but Chris King's not afraid to tackle really big problems. The guy doesn't get fazed," said Gio Continenza, who is a rising sophomore at Wake Forest University thanks to a program King established to help low-income, high-performing high schoolers attend elite colleges.

In his airy, Winter Park corner office sprinkled with photos of children he has helped educate and feed in Haiti, Africa and Orange County, King sounds at times like a naive Boy Scout eager to do good and at others like a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with no patience for half measures and small ideas.

To dramatically shift Florida's economic development agenda, he wants to "jump start funds" to seed homegrown businesses and entrepreneurs with small grants, create "ready, aim, hire" job training institutes at community colleges, and would insist Tallahassee face what he calls an affordable housing crisis. Driven by his Christian faith, King would push to expand access to health care and fight for anti-discrimination protections for gay Floridians.

"I want to change the way Florida looks and feels," said King, who becomes especially animated when discussing granular economic data. "I want four years to shoot for the stars. I want this to be a transformative period for Florida. I want to be someone people say has the DNA to do big things. To me, that's the only way the sacrifice of this makes sense."

In a diverse group of Democrats running for governor, he looks like the most unconventional and underrated of the bunch.

When the Tampa Bay Times recently surveyed more than 200 "Florida Insiders" closely involved in state politics, nearly three in four predicted former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, the daughter of former Sen. Bob Graham, would win the Democratic nomination for governor; 12 percent predicted Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, 8 percent Miami Beach businessman and Mayor Philip Levine and 8 percent King.

People who know King best tend to be much less skeptical.

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Bishop Allen T.D. Wiggins leads the Hope Church in Orlando, whose mostly African-American congregation emphasizes community outreach and improving living conditions for low-income residents.

"People would rave about this businessman establishing fish farms and tree farms in Haiti, schools in Africa," said Wiggins, who finally met King at a conference a few years ago.

Politicians clamor to speak at Hope Church's pulpit in election years, but Wiggins has never been so enthusiastic about a candidate for governor.

"I heard about his heart, and I ended up gaining a great respect for his mind," Wiggins said. "I've seen his discipline, his ethics, how he researches and surrounds himself with top team players, and how he understands business but at the same time has a heart for the least, lost and the left behind."

Linda Chapin, the Democratic former Orange County mayor, has known King most of his life. She is old friends with his father, attorney David King, and mother, Marilyn King, a civic leader heavily involved in children's issues and improving the area's health care systems.

Chris King is more than a high achiever, says Chapin, who remembers the Winter Park High School president and basketball team captain organizing an appreciation barbecue for the custodial staff and quietly establishing a fund for the school's guidance counselors to help lower-income students pay for prom clothes.

"This is truly a unique individual," she said.

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It's common for politicians to tout the importance of their faith. It's less common for liberal politicians.

"It informs who he is. He is a person of deep and abiding faith, and that's how he believes so passionately in fairness and opportunity for all," said Tampa business litigator Fentrice Driskell, who grew up in Lakeland and attended Harvard with him.

King was active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in high school, and his high school sweetheart wife, Kristen, is also a devout Christian.

His faith and active participation in a Bible study group helped him cope with the suicide of his older brother a few weeks after moving to Cambridge in 1997.

He rarely mentioned Christianity the following year when running for president of Harvard's undergraduate student council (Driskell was his running mate). But an uproar ensued after an email from a supporter in the Christian Fellowship surfaced, asking friends to protect King and Driskell "from Satan's tactics" against them and declaring that "God's hand is directing them to run."

King narrowly lost in an election a Wall Street Journal columnist cast as an example of liberal elite bigotry against Christians on Harvard yard. The irony was that King was the progressive candidate — and strongly critical of the religious right — who lost to a Republican.

"My lesson was that a lot of people have been hurt by the faith community, particularly by the religious right," said King, who supports abortion rights, gay rights and the separation of church and state.

"I really had to figure out who I was and how I would communicate my faith in a way that expanded the tent and helped uplift relationships and did not scare people," said King, who grew up in the Presbyterian Church and now worships at nondenominational Summit Church in Orlando.

He spent a summer working with Jim Wallis, the liberal theologian and social activist, and at Harvard he concentrated his studies on religion, politics and public policy.

King earned his law degree at the University of Florida in 2005, but after practicing for a year, he decided he wanted to go into business.

The Great Recession was preparing to explode when King started Elevation Financial Group. At a time when high-end condos were appearing everywhere, he wanted to focus on affordable housing.

"I saw a real financial and a real missional opportunity," he said. "I had this dream to build a business that was sort of one part for-profit, one part nonprofit, one part change the world — kind of the do-well-by-doing-good mentality."

King, who has three young children, pitched that for-profit idealism to people willing to invest $10,000 or so to invest in aging distressed properties that needed turning around.

After a tough few years, his breakthrough came when he saw that the government-insured loans behind tens of thousands of affordable senior housing units built in the Johnson and Nixon administrations were sunsetting. The buildings were often old and dilapidated, owned by churches or nonprofits struggling to manage them properly.

In 2009, Elevation bought the 17-story Bethany Towers apartment complex in South Pasadena that for years had been generating headlines about rampant mold, bugs, drug dealing and unhappy tenants. Elevation bought the property, now called Bay Pointe Tower, for $1.6 million, spent $1.2 million renovating it and drew praise from housing officials and tenants. Elevation sold it in late 2014 for $8.75 million.

Though Elevation relies little on public funding, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has honored the firm for preserving affordable housing.

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Wallace Mazon, a 22-year-old Democratic activist in Gainesville who supports Andrew Gillum for governor, a few months ago saw King speak at a Young Democrats gathering.

"I liked him, but didn't think much of it. I just thought he was some business guy with a Bruce Wayne complex," said Mazon, who later ran into a buddy, Revel Lubin, at UF's library and mentioned seeing King speak.

Lubin said King was largely responsible for him being able to attend college. Once homeless, Lubin was among the first participants in the Elevation Scholars Program that King created through a partnership with the University of Central Florida and the Orange County School District to guide high-performing, low-income students to elite colleges and universities.

"That guy definitely practices what he preaches," said Mazon, who still prefers a candidate with more government experience and doubts King can win.

King started mulling a run for governor more than a year ago.

"The business flywheel is spinning. The philanthropic flywheel is spinning, but I feel like there are some huge issues that nobody is speaking to," he said, ticking off economic data indicating Florida is lagging most other states in productivity. "This is a crazy idea, I told my wife, but this is the culture change position. In one year I could do more for affordable housing or health care access than I can do the rest of my career."

He has already committed more than $1 million of his own money to a campaign, and he hired several alums from Barack Obama's presidential campaign. He's smart enough to know that a political rookie unknown even to most Florida political junkies is a long shot.

Faith guides him.

"It's what's going to be the driving force," he said, "if the underdog can pull off this race."

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Adam Smith at Follow @AdamSmithTimes.