Charlie Crist's Pinellas Cold Shoulder
Around the State
It was a brisk November morning when former Gov. Charlie Crist made his way up to the podium at St. Petersburg’s Albert Whitted Park. A cool breeze drifted through the air as Florida's 44th governor began to speak, announcing his intention to become Florida's 46th governor.
Crist, born and raised in Pinellas County, spoke fondly of the place in which he grew up. But as time and the 2014 gubernatorial campaign have progressed, it appears the former governor has developed a cold shoulder toward the place he’s called home for many years.
When it came to hiring staff, Crist didn’t pull from his hometown. Instead, he enlisted the help of longtime Tallahassee minds like Kevin Cate and Rick Minor to guide his campaign. Cate, who serves as Crist’s campaign communications consultant, has worked with Alex Sink and other Democrats during his career.
Minor currently serves as chief of staff to Tallahassee Mayor John Marks and is seen by some as an ultra-liberal who will have trouble appealing to moderates.
Franco Ripple is one of the few St. Petersburg folk who made the cut -- he currently handles Crist’s media. So did Michelle Todd, who works as a senior adviser to Crist. But the bulk of the hiring focused on Tallahassee and South Florida recruits.
The criticisms of Charlie Crist abandoning those close to him in the Tampa Bay area aren’t new -- even close allies to the former governor have said that after his election as governor in 2006, he backed away from his loyal friends in the area to pick up new ones in South Florida, like former lawyer and Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein.
In 2014, Crist has placed a heavy focus on South Florida. He opened a field office in Broward County in April, right after he announced he and his wife, Carole, would be renting a home on Fisher Island. And he opened two more this weekend in Miami.
But with the focused interest in South Florida, where does that put Crist’s home base of Tampa Bay?
The area is certainly a hot spot for liberal voters -- Pinellas County leaned Democratic for the last two presidential elections and the area seemed to be in an upswing for Dems when Rick Kriseman beat out incumbent Bill Foster to become mayor of St. Petersburg.
The tide seems to be changing, however, and Democrats in the area seem to be struggling to get their bearings.
In March, former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink lost the congressional race against mostly unknown Republican David Jolly. In spite of the fact that Crist made a donation to Sink's campaign, he did not take a step forward to endorse Sink and did not seem to play an active role in the Democrats' effort to win the congressional seat.
When it came time to find a new nominee to face off against Jolly, Sink said she wasn’t going to run again.
The hunt for a nominee continued and African-American minister Manuel Sykes expressed interest to take the Democratic nomination. That didn't last too long though -- Pinellas County's Democratic chairman pushed Sykes out of the race after he left a voicemail telling him he would be "persona non grata" if he went through with his plans to run for the seat.
With Sykes out of the running, Eduardo “Ed” Jany seemed to be the right man for the job, despite not living in the area and having no party affiliation. But he, too, saw problems when questions emerged about holes in his resume -- and Jany dropped out.
But for the man who wants to become the de facto leader of the Democratic Party, mum’s the word. Crist has only lost one statewide election in Pinellas County -- his 1998 longshot bid against incumbent U.S. Sen. Bob Graham. He even beat out Marco Rubio as a no party affiliate candidate in 2010.
Yet Crist has not expressed any desire to clean up the mess of his hometown Democratic Party, despite claims he holds it so near and dear to his heart. He's stayed fairly quiet about what many have viewed as an embarrassing state of affairs for Democrats, and it's uncertain if and when the party will right itself.
As political observers have wondered, if Pinellas Democrats are looking for a godsend, is Charlie Crist the savior who can part the waters and lead them to higher ground? One veteran political observer said:
"[Crist] says Pinellas county is near and dear to his heart, but it's kind of ironic that it seems, in the last few months, he stood around while Pinellas Democrats' 2014 political fortunes burned to the ground."
Reach Tampa-based reporter Allison Nielsen at Allison@sunshinestatenews.com or follow her on Twitter at @AllisonNielsen.