The New Faces of Politics
Getting to know Charlie Crist, Bryan Desloge, John Dailey and Jackie PonsThe New Faces of Politics
He’s new to the position, but we’re pretty used to seeing Gov. Charlie Crist’s high-contrast looks around Tallahassee. After all, he spent most of his college years and political career here. But now that Crist has moved in to the big house at 700 North Adams Street, we thought it might be fun to get some insights into his bachelor life at the Governor’s Mansion.
There are also some new kids on the local government block. Although these recently elected leaders may be new to the political scene, all grew up here in Tallahassee. We’re profiling Leon County Schools Superintendent Jackie Pons and county commissioners John Dailey and Bryan Desloge to learn a little bit about their pasts and what their plans
are for the future.
The People’s Governor:
A bachelor and happy warrior
By Ed George
Tallahassee has an unspoken pride about being the official, undisputed home of Florida’s sitting governors. And the truth is, Tallahassee has not had a governor quite like newly elected Gov. Charlie Crist. Not ever, despite having had quite a variety of personalities at the Governor’s Mansion. Sure, we’ve had a presidential brother (Jeb Bush) and a self-described “he-coon” (Lawton Chiles). And we’ve had a Harvard lawyer-dairyman who really didn’t practice law or milk cows (Bob Graham).
But Crist is just plain unique. Or maybe plain and unique. For instance, he is an unrepentant bachelor – he never has had a family of his own and was married only for a very brief time more than 27 years ago.
Every Florida governor so far has been a man, and all but a few were married with children. Former Gov. Graham’s four daughters lived in the Governor’s Mansion, which is not really a mansion at all. It’s a roomy and not-even-very-posh residence with a few too many additions. Despite the additions, any sizable event has to be held in huge catering tents on the cramped back lawn. It’s even a little embarrassing when you consider that our next-door neighbors in Georgia have a larger and more ornate mansion, complete with a grand ballroom.
And neither is the structure old enough to be called historic. It was built in 1957. Take away the high wrought-iron fence and the post-Sept. 11 blast barricades and it’s just another big lovely house with an abundance of red brick, white paint, shutters and columns. The Greek Revival architecture is copied from Gen. Andrew Jackson’s former home, the Hermitage, near Nashville, Tenn.
But we’re getting off track. Back to governors.
It often is written that Florida’s first Republican governor after Reconstruction, Claude Kirk, was a bachelor. However, Kirk, who was in office in the late 1960s, had an ex-wife, Kitty, and three children in Jacksonville. He dated a woman he called “Madam X,” married her and had a daughter and a son. So as far as bachelors go, Kirk was not exactly dyed-in-the-wool.
Former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez and his wife, Mary Jane, came into office with grown children and had just become grandparents of twins. Lawton and Rhea Chiles had been hanging out in the U.S. Senate for more than two decades before he was elected governor. So their children were grown. Jeb and Columba Bush had a daughter, Noel, who lived with them off and on, and their younger son, “Jebbie,” boarded at the Bolles School in Jacksonville. Elder son George P. was off on his own. First lady Columba was in Tallahassee frequently, but seemed to prefer Miami.
So, other than public tours and special events, there has not been any real abundance of family life going on over at 700 N. Adams St. since Bob Graham left 20 years ago. Looking at it that way, maybe having a one-man family in residence is not that out of the ordinary.
The Real Charlie Crist
What is the new governor really like?
“Charlie is just a regular, nice guy. He is completely unaffected by higher office, has not changed one bit and is really most comfortable when he is in the company of regular people,” said Christopher Kise, who was Crist’s top lawyer – solicitor general – in the Florida Attorney General’s Office. He now is counselor to the governor and works with Crist every day.
Crist, Kise said, will change out of his suit and tie, put on a pair of jeans and a casual shirt and get comfortable at the Governor’s Mansion, just like anybody else. In fact, on Inauguration Day, the first thing he did after the formal ceremony at the Old Capitol and the small parade that followed was to change into jeans and a sweater and walk out the front door of the mansion to shake hands and welcome visitors in the front yard.
According to an associate, Crist had his driver stop at Publix on the way home recently so that the governor could run in to “get something to fix for supper.” He had decided the kitchen staff should have a night off.
JoAnn Carrin, director of the governor’s new Office of Open Government, has worked with Crist even longer than Kise has. She was at the Florida Department of Education when Crist took over, and she followed him when he was elected attorney general.
“I can’t tell you how many times I have heard him say to people, ‘You’re the boss, I work for you,’” she said. “That really does sum up his approach to government service. The customers always come first.”
Although he moved into the Governor’s Mansion in January, Crist is by no means new to Tallahassee. He attended Florida State University and lived here – at least weekdays – as a state senator, Department of Business and Professional Regulation bureaucrat, state education commissioner and, most recently, as the state attorney general. In fact, he may come into the office with more Tallahassee living under his belt than any of the last five governors.
So how does he like the Governor’s Mansion? After just a handful of nights there, he made this observation to a group of Lincoln High School students: “I live in this great big place by myself. It’s a little creepy at night.”
For the first time in his life, Crist is sleeping on a king-size bed.
“That’s a really big bed,” he told colleagues.
The Inside Scoop
Here is what Crist’s MySpace profile might look like, based on what we know so far about the governor’s personal life:
He likes sports cars. Crist owns a sleek, though slightly used, Jaguar convertible and, until recently, leased a new yellow Ford Mustang convertible. But alas, gubernatorial security details hate convertibles.
He enjoys boating. Crist likes to fish in the Gulf of Mexico aboard his green, 25-foot, center-console Trophy fishing boat named “Freedom.” He keeps it moored behind his parents’ Snell Island home in Pinellas County – the home he grew up in. Fishing partners include his dad and fraternity brother Brent Sembler.
He swims laps and does sit-ups and other exercises daily – usually before dawn. Crist usually eats just one meal a day, and is thin and physically fit.
He rarely drinks. A cold beer (nothing fancy, a domestic will do) or an occasional martini is pretty much it.
He is consistently tan, and the dark skin contrasts with snowy white hair, closely cropped.
He likes his caffeine: coffee, an occasional Cuban coffee, and energy drinks such as Red Bull, although that could change now that he is off the campaign trail.
He is very close to his parents and especially his physician father. They talk every day when possible. Crist has three sisters.
He maintains a lease on a modest, one-bedroom condominium in Pinellas County and may keep it as a weekend getaway while in office.
You won’t see him much, at least in leisure mode, around Tallahassee. He is described as a workaholic.
If you do see him dining out, it might be at Albert’s Provence or Chez Pierre.
He likes to keep things simple and not get bogged down in the details. Crist’s tendency is to hire the best people for a job and let them flesh out the details.
A Not-So-Checkered Past
Crist grew up in St. Petersburg with his three sisters. His father was, and still is, a family physician. Charles Crist Sr. was elected to the Pinellas County School Board at one point. Young Charlie loved sports, especially football. He was a starting quarterback at St. Petersburg High School.
Crist was known for his good arm and could throw a spiral 60 or more yards. He went to Wake Forest on a football scholarship, but did not play varsity ball and transferred to Florida State University. He was crowned FSU’s Homecoming Chief and was elected vice president of the student body. Crist joined Pi Kappa Alpha – at the time a large, powerful fraternity where, according to pictures on its Web site, he had quite a bit of fun. The future governor got his law degree at Cumberland Law in Birmingham, Ala.
It’s All About Straight Talk
In his statewide campaign and throughout the first weeks of his term as governor, Crist lashed out at Tallahassee’s acronym-infested jargon. And so it is no surprise that he has created Charlie-speak. Here are a few examples:
“It all boils down to this: Work together to do what’s right for the people.”
“There is no ugly place in Florida. She is beautiful and she is special, and we need to protect her.”
“The Everglades is a treasure, and so are a lot of other places: rivers, springs and beaches that we need to protect.”
“Every pencil has an eraser. Every single one. Every one they make. Why? Because people make mistakes. And I’m going to make mistakes, too.”
“God gave us two ears and one mouth. So . . . we should listen twice as much as we talk.”
“You are the boss. I work for you. I work for the people.”
“I let (criticism and personal attacks) roll off my back. Otherwise I’d always be playing defense, and I like to play offense.”
“Education is the great opportunity provider.”
“Children don’t get a second opportunity to go to elementary school. They get one chance.”
“Am I a liberal? Am I a conservative? I don’t think of myself that way. I’m not a label. The label I am most proud of is Floridian. And that’s the only label that matters.”
And finally: “I know the stuff I say sounds corny, but I believe it in my heart.”
So, is Crist just a highly polished, totally scripted McCandidate? Not even close, according to Kise.
“I know everybody is getting tired of hearing it, but it’s true. He is not faking anything,” said Crist’s lawyer/counselor. “He is sincere. He is just the perfect example of nice guys sometimes finishing first.”
Bryan DeslogeThe Political Newcomer with a Familiar Face
By Rosanne Dunkelberger
A Tallahassee native, new Leon County District 4 Commissioner Bryan Desloge has made a “quasi-career” out of serving on the boards of local organizations. Just the highlights of his memberships and affiliations takes up the better part of page, and he and his wife, Beth, are fixtures at local fundraisers.
“I think I’m pretty good at it,” the 47-year-old Desloge said of his board work. “It’s fascinating to watch the mechanics of people trying to figure out how can you take seven or eight or 12 disparate views and craft them into something.”
And it’s an activity he thinks has provided excellent training for his new political career.
“I think I understand the mechanics of getting a group of bright people together and trying to move forward,” he said.
Desloge said he is hoping to bring collegiality to the sometimes-contentious commission. Disagreements are inevitable, he said, but “I think it’s a good thing if, at the end of the day, you’re willing to let it go.”
The freshman commissioner also cites his “close, strong, trusting relationships” with Tallahassee city commissioners as one of his assets.
Specific to his district, Desloge said he intends to focus attention on the already overcrowded Bannerman Road.
“If we (widened) it today, it would be in excess of $60 million,” he said. “. . . Someone has got to start beating the drum and say, ‘That’s got to be on the list of priorities.’ It’s just being ignored.”
He also is trying to partner with the city and Leon County Schools to create a park in his district, possibly near Roberts Elementary School.
Initially, Desloge had filed to run for the at-large seat held by incumbent Cliff Thaell. But when District 4 Commissioner Tony Grippa announced he was resigning, Desloge decided to jump into that race, ruffling a few political feathers by challenging Will Messer. (Although County Commission races are nonpartisan, both are Republicans.) Desloge won in what would become the most expensive County Commission race ever.
Desloge said he drove to Aspen, Colo., to become a “ski bum” within days of his graduation from Florida State University “and got enough fast living in to last me for the rest of my life.” He returned to his hometown to work as an administrator for IBM for 10 years before starting a medical equipment business 15 years ago.
He still is an avid skier – he has a week-long trek from France to Switzerland planned in April – but spends much of his time with pursuits related to his wife and four children.
“I wake up most days thinking I’m the luckiest guy in the world, I really do,” he said.
John DaileyA Friendly Face on the Leon County Commission
By Rosanne Dunkelberger
How’re y’all doin’?”
If John Dailey, newly elected commissioner from Leon County’s District 3, said it once as he wandered the halls of the County Courthouse, he said it 50 times, offering the genial greeting to security guards, office staffers and random folks who were in the building doing business.
He comes by it honestly. His father, the late Scott Dailey, was a popular member of the Leon County School Board, known for his affability and collegiality. And while it is the first local government office for the 34-year-old, his dad also is the reason John Dailey is no stranger to politics. Growing up, he recalled, “local government, local politics was dinner-table conversation.”
Dailey is hoping to use some of that natural congeniality to encourage his fellow county commissioners to work with each other and with other government entities.
“There are no simple solutions to complex problems, but with the right team and the right information and with the right leadership, I am confident we can move forward,” he said.
Replacing Dan Winchester, who decided not to run for a third term, Dailey inherited his sixth-floor office with a fantastic view of the state Capitol as well as Judith Dougherty, who served as the former commissioner’s aide during his eight years in office.
“Dan really stood firm on a lot of environmental issues, especially Lake Jackson – and I will be right there with him,” Dailey said. “You’ve got to make sure you protect it.”
While the lake is its most visible landmark, Dailey calls District 3 the county’s “most diverse,” running “from Tharpe Street to the Georgia line and from Eastgate to the Ochlockonee River.” He also is planning on paying attention to other projects of interest to his district, including the widening of Interstate 10 and construction of a new branch library on the northwest side of town.
Six months old when he moved to Tallahassee, Dailey went to school here (attending Timberlane Elementary, Raa Middle and Maclay High schools) and was the student body president at Florida State University, where he earned undergraduate and master’s degrees. It also was at FSU that he met his wife of nine years, Ginny, who was vice president during his FSU tenure. Dailey plans to continue working at his day job as president of JDA Strategies, a public-information research and political consulting firm.
Jackie Pons ‘Everybody in the Community Brings Value’
By Rosanne Dunkelberger
It seems as though there are two types of people in Leon County: those who have known Jackie Pons from the cradle – and those who think he’s a she.
The 50-year-old, newly elected superintendent of Leon County Schools, who calls himself a “country boy,” was born and raised here. He attended public elementary schools, played Little League ball, swam in the Levy Park pool and graduated from North Florida Christian. He earned degrees from Florida State and Florida A&M universities and had a career in education that took him to several high-profile positions (teacher, coach, assistant principal, principal) in schools throughout the county. Pons has been married for 30 years to Kay Bellflower Pons (she works for the school district as a secretary in the planning department) and has a daughter, Kristy, who attends Tallahassee Community College.
During his election campaign, Pons did door-to-door campaigning four or five days a week – and quickly realized that he didn’t know everybody.
“I’d knock on doors and tell them, ‘I’m Jackie Pons,’ and sometimes they’d laugh and say, ‘I thought you were a woman.’”
His true name is John O. Pons. Jackie “was a nickname growing up – that’s what everybody called me, and it kind of stuck with me,” he said.
Pons has a five-point priority list for improving the school district, with several line items already teed up for implementation – including the addition of camera surveillance systems in every Leon County school by December and the return of the seventh period to all high schools.
While the need for school security was a highlight of his platform, it became an overwhelming priority after the attempted abduction of a kindergartner at a local elementary school just a few days after Pons was sworn in to his new job.
The additional high school period, he said, is necessary to keep students engaged in learning by offering more elective subjects. “We know that fine arts programs are programs that keep kids in school, that give them hope and give them a reason to get up and go to school every day,” he said.
While it seems like Topic 1 in any discussion about education, Pons was 27 minutes into an interview before the subject of standardized testing came up.
“FCAT is obviously important because it’s a state mandate, but I also think there’s more to life than just FCAT,” he said. “We want to keep our district as one of the highest in the state of Florida, but at the same time we want our children to know what its like to play a lifetime sport, to learn to appreciate art and fine music, because these are educational opportunities that last a lifetime.”
Pons calls himself a consensus builder and said he’s willing to entertain ideas for improving the school system – wherever they come from.
“Everybody in the community brings value – we need to be willing to try new ideas, new concepts, and not run from ’em – and to involve a lot of individuals in the decision-making process,” he said. “And if we do that, it’s only going to make the system better.”