Crist: Hard-Liner with a Soft Side

So, who is the real Charlie Crist?CHARLIE CRIST, REPUBLICAN
Hard-Liner with a Soft Side


Ask anyone who knows him and they’ll tell you that Charlie Crist, Republican frontrunner for governor, is a nice guy – affable and engaging and known for personally penning notes of congratulations.

But he also has a reputation as “Chain Gang Charlie,” who takes the hardest of hard lines, supporting longer prison sentences, tougher penalties and throwing probation violators back in jail.

So which one is the real Charlie Crist? According to the candidate, both aspects of his personality are alive, well and not at all at odds with each other.

“Ronald Reagan used to always say, ‘Never confuse kindness with weakness,’” he said. “And just because you might be nice doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re weak or that you won’t have very strong convictions about what you believe in … .

“My parents raised my sisters and me to always be kind to others and to do unto others and that sort of thing – yet also with some very strong beliefs about right and wrong. When you see something that’s wrong, you have a duty … to try to do everything you can to right it.”

“When you see something that’s wrong, you have a duty … to try to do everything you can to right it.”

Crist’s campaign biography says his path to the governorship started nearly a century ago, when his grandfather emigrated to the United States from Cyprus “seeking the promise of a better life that only America could provide.”

It was a heritage, his campaign Web site says, that gives him a “fundamental belief in the goodness of people and his rock-solid commitment to the values that have made America the envy of freedom-loving people for more than two centuries.”

Taking the shorter view, Crist, who is 49 and divorced, was born in Altoona, Pa., and settled as a youngster with his family in St. Petersburg. He is fond of both his parents, calling his father, still a practicing family physician, “my best friend” and his mother “the sweetest person I’ve ever met.”

His father was active in local politics, serving on the Pinellas County School Board at one time. Crist, who calls himself “a proud product of Florida’s public school system and our state university system,” cut his political teeth early – serving as class president at St. Petersburg High School and as student-body vice president at Florida State University. (He started out his college career at Wake Forest University before transferring to FSU and received his law degree from Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Ala.)

“I practiced law for about 20 years – I’m still doing that (as Florida’s attorney general), come to think of it,” he said. “I’m your lawyer, for you.”

In addition to working as an attorney, he served as state director for U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, who Crist credits as being a friend and mentor who taught him important lessons about collegiality.

“He’s a very decent, caring human being who I think is desperately more needed in politics today,” Crist said. “We’ve got to have cooperation … the people deserve that … They’ve shown us time and again that they don’t appreciate the lack of civility or the sort of sniping in politics that goes on. We don’t have to lower ourselves to that. It’s not my style.”

Crist began his career in state politics in 1992, when he was elected to the Senate, where he would ultimately serve for six years. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 1998, but got walloped by Democratic incumbent Bob Graham. When Jeb Bush became governor in that election, he appointed Crist as deputy secretary for the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Crist then was elected the state’s commissioner of education in a 2000 special election (the last one – the position is now appointed by the governor) and segued into his present attorney general position when he was elected in 2002.

Since then, he has kept a high profile, maintaining his hard-line approach toward convicted criminals, as well as engaging in constituent-pleasing activities such as challenging public-utility rate increases and promoting civil rights legislation.

“Education is the most important issue to me, but in terms of being able to effect change and make an executive decision and help an awful lot of people in Florida, the office of attorney general affords you that,” Crist said. “I can only imagine one (elective office that) would do it even more, and that’s the one I’m running for.”

Crist is not about to get too comfortable with his status as the favored candidate who possesses a bulging war chest and an impressive list of endorsements.

“I suppose it’s better than the opposite, but it certainly has its challenges,” he said. “It creates a certain expectation. I just stay focused on working hard every day, first and foremost – being the very best attorney general I can be and then working very hard to continue to gain the trust and confidence of the people of the state I love. I think if I continue to do that, things will work out fine.” – Rosanne Dunkelberger


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