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  1. Florida Politics

Rep. Charlie Crist spends hours answering questions at St. Petersburg town hall

ST. PETERSBURG — Tracy Crabtree of Clearwater writes to legislators.

She emails and sends letters and postcards. She makes calls, too, but "nine times out of 10," she said, no one answers. On Saturday in front of a crowd of about 550 people, she asked Rep. Charlie Crist how best to get through and be heard.

Crist called her up to the stage at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and handed her his business card. He told her to read the number on the bottom.

"On every card I hand out, it's my personal cellphone," he said.

He read the digits to the crowd.

"Call me," he told them, as if they were all his friends. In a way, the people of Pinellas County are.

During his first town hall since being elected, the former governor and new congressman received a standing ovation from constituents in his hometown. In return, the St. Petersburg Democrat shared anecdotes from his political career and his stances on hot-button issues. He spent just over four hours in the college's grand ballroom answering questions — two hours longer than scheduled.

"I know your questions are going to be a challenge and hard to answer," he said. "I want them to be.

"Any politician who says they know all the answers, run."

Soon, the crowd's excitement became concern as, one by one, people took the microphone. Most focused on President Donald Trump's administration.

There was a woman who wanted assurance Crist supports Planned Parenthood. (He does.) People wondered what will happen if Obamacare is repealed, how to handle hate crimes and how best to stand up to policy with which they so strongly disagree.

Cuthbert Hutton, 31, of St. Petersburg is an ecologist who works in the mining industry. He's worried staffing is being stripped from the Environmental Protection Agency, which his own career depends on.

He worries the same thing is happening to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"What can you do to make sure the federal departments of government are properly staffed to achieve their role in our country?" he asked.

The crowd cheered. Crist told Hutton when he speaks, people listen — himself included.

"You are my boss," Crist said to him. "You literally pay me."

Crist said he understood Hutton's concerns, and while Congress might "hold the purse strings" to create the budgets for the agencies, it does not control the number of staff members. He told Hutton — and others like him — to continue to speak out so he can bring what they say back to Washington.

Crist, a former Republican, used questions like this one to set up how much Trump's stances differ from his own.

When Clearwater travel agent Cathy Codon Nail got to the mic, that theme continued.

"Foreign nationals have changed their plans because they don't feel welcome," she said.

Crist looked to the travel ban that Trump put in place to keep people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, which Crist doesn't support.

"It's seven nations tomorrow," he said. "What about next week?"

When Randy Wright of Seminole questioned the future of the Affordable Care Act, Crist said he wants to see it improved, not repealed.

When another man talked about standing up to the Trump administration, Crist said he wanted to see Attorney General Jeff Sessions step down, not just recuse himself from an investigation about his contact with Russia's ambassador.

He lied under oath, Crist said, in a job the requires honesty and integrity.

That brought cheers.

Crist kept on as the crowd thinned out around noon, when the 10 a.m. event was scheduled to end. After a quick break, he continued chatting with some two dozen people.

It's his duty to listen to the voters, he said, to digest and feel what they say, and then do something about it.

They sat in a circle around him. Some hugged him goodbye, some asked for photos. He was there past 2 p.m.

After all, this was home.

Contact Sara DiNatale at or (727) 893-8862. Follow @sara_dinatale.