WASHINGTON – When the 2008 economic downturn struck America, Florida was hit especially hard. Charlie Crist — who was then serving as the state’s Governor — received a call from President Barack Obama inviting him to a Fort Myers rally backing the White House’s plan to inject $12 billion in recovery assistance to the Sunshine state. Crist’s staff hesitated. As a Republican, Crist publicly accepting an invitation from Obama could wreak a devastating political blow. But, the Florida Governor agreed and introduced the President since Crist felt the state desperately required economic support and he believed in the importance of honoring the office of the Presidency.
After his speech, Obama approached Crist and hugged the Florida governor. The moment was caught on camera. The Florida lawmaker told Jewish Insider, “That was the hug that killed me as a Republican. Because some in my party still couldn’t quite get their head around the fact that we had this new first African American President.”
After deciding to run for a U.S. Senate seat in 2010, Crist was collapsing in the polls. Given his ongoing discomfort with what he perceived as a rightward shift among the Republican Party, Crist reached out to Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) for advice. The two became friendly in the 2008 Presidential race; Crist asked the 2000 Democratic Vice Presidential candidate if he should make the switch to Independent and Lieberman responded, “Charlie, if you do it, you’ll feel so liberated.” That same week, the Florida governor left his longtime party and registered as an independent. While he ended up losing the Senate race to Marco Rubio (R-FL), Crist emphasized, “It worked out the way it’s supposed to. Beshert.”
Despite switching parties, Crist has maintained strong support for Israel. He was the first governor to sign a bill that divested Florida’s retirement funds away from Iran collaborating with then-State Senator Ted Deutch (D-FL). He selected the Jewish state as his first trade mission with former Congressman Robert Wexler (D-FL) joining the trip. “We went to Tel Aviv, which reminded me of Florida because you are right on the coast,” Crist noted. “I love Israel. The food is amazing.”
An avid swimmer, the Congressman heads to the pool every day before work. The former governor’s first call each morning is to his father who Crist describes as “his best friend” and role model. Crist has a unique heritage as his grandmother was born in Lebanon before leaving the Middle East while his grandfather arrived in America when he was only 14 from Cyprus. “I’m 60 and I can’t think about going on a boat by myself around the world. But, he did it,” Crist noted. The Florida lawmaker does not allow Washington’s partisan clashes to constrain him. On the Congressman’s office wall, hangs pictures of both Obama and former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney, who coincidentally served in the exact same office when in the legislative branch.
After completing his term as governor, Crist surprised many when he expressed interest in running for the House of Representatives. “People would say to me – friends – ‘my gosh, you were governor of Florida now the third largest state in the country, why would you want to be 1 of 435?’” Crist said. The Florida lawmaker stressed his passion for public service that has kept him involved in politics and his love for engaging with constituents. “I believe in the same things I always have: not wasting money, a strong defense, a great education, and protecting the environment,” he noted. “My former party changed – just like what I think happened to Ronald Reagan.”
Jewish Insider: Why did you run for Congress?
Representative Charlie Crist: “Well, I have run for Congress before, I ran for the Senate twice and lost. Then you learn a lot. You learn more from losses than you do from victories. It’s good to have both. Basically, it’s because I love to serve, literally. It’s like a calling; it may sound a little weird, but it’s true. It started when I was a junior in high school. My first exposure to politics was through my father. My dad was a family doctor in my hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida. I had the privilege to represent St. Petersburg and Clearwater because of the Florida Supreme Court, they redrew the district lines. I was recruited by the DCCC to run and then a friend Kathy Castor, who is a member here. We had a conversation, and she encouraged me to run because I had no intention of running to be honest. I had recently been defeated for the governorship by Governor Scott by about one point. I thought maybe it was done and then out of nowhere I was reading the paper in July following that November defeat and it said that the districts had been redrawn and it included where I lived.”
“What’s funny is people would say to me – friends – ‘my gosh, you were governor of Florida now the third largest state in the country, why would you want to be 1 of 435? I said it’s because I love to serve. I want to help. It’s what I do. And by the grace of God, we won. I’m very humbled and happy. My father ran for the school board when I was nine and I remember it was a Saturday morning and a fish fry because he really hadn’t campaigned much so the local Republican Party chairman told my Dad, you need to go out and campaign if you want to win. My dad came up to me, he called me arlie because my older sister – God rest her soul – couldn’t pronounce the “Ch” in Charlie so arlie kind of stuck when I was a kid. He goes: Arlie, you want to come to this fish fry with me? I said, yeah. Let’s go see what’s going on. He and I went. There were all these picnic tables around the lake. He gave me a stack of his cards and said Why don’t you go table to table and introduce yourself? We have the same name. I’m junior. And ask them to vote for Pop and I did. And I loved it. I just love talking to people and here where are they from and what they care about.”
JI: When changing political parties, have your views also shifted?
Crist: “Not for me. I haven’t changed at all. I believe in the same things I always have. I believe in being decent to other people, not wasting money, a strong defense, law and order, a great education, protecting the environment: the same things that I always have. I am what I am. My former party changed – just like what I think happened to Ronald Reagan. He was a Democrat and became a Republican. His former party, I assume, changed.”
JI: Why did you change parties?
Crist: “I saw it beginning when I was governor (picture of Obama on his wall, Cheney). It was January 2009 and I met with my economic advisor, Jeremy McDaniel. I said, Jeremy, what’s going on with the economy? And he said terrible. Virtually, money is not coming in. I said, what’s the plan Jeremy? He said the plan is that the President Obama wants to give you $12 billion. I said, I like that plan. We need it badly. He (Obama) said he needs to get it through Congress. I guess a few weeks later, early February, my office in Tallahassee got a call from the White House. The purpose of the call was to let us know that he was going to come to Fort Myers soon and was inviting me to be there with him, if I wanted to be. I said sure. And my staff said, are you sure? I said, yeah. They said, you know he’s a Democrat. I said he’s the President of the United States of America and I am in honor of the office and him, particularly because what he is trying to do for our Florida and our country with the Recovery Act so I went. The President motions to me and says, please have a seat. So, I sit next to him in the back of the big car. And he said, before you go in, I wanted to say something to you. He said: first, thank you. I want to thank you for coming. You are going to pay a political price just for being here today. Since you are here, would you mind introducing me? And I said, that would be an honor too. So, we went up there and I go to the podium and it was loud. I said, please give a welcome to our President? It’s great to have him here. He is here to talk about something that can be very good for Florida and America: The Recovery Act. I said we need to do it in a bipartisan way because it is right for all of America. So, please give a warm welcome to President Barack Obama. Then he comes to the podium and I wait to greet him. When he gets there, he shakes my hand. And then he did it. He pulled me in and hugged me. And somebody took a picture of it. And that was the hug that killed me as a Republican. Because some in my party still couldn’t quite get their head around the fact that we had this new first African American President. I will just call a thing a thing. And that’s sad. Now, not all Republicans, mind you. But there was an element that didn’t like it at all. I heard about it. “
JI: So, you think that race played a significant factor in those opposing President Obama?
Crist: “I would rather characterize it as unfairness. Unfairness and arrogance are the two things that get under my skin. It’s why as Attorney General I fought for civil rights. It’s why as Education Commissioner I fought for higher pay for teachers. It’s why as state senator I wanted to protect the environment and sponsor the net ban to save our fisheries. I was at a rally when I ran for the Senate a second time, 2010. I go up and give my speech and it was politely received until the very end of my speech, there were 500 people there – I’m guessing – towards the back this white guy stands up and he goes, “Go hug Obama again!” I just kind of looked at him and I’m like, “I’m detecting something here that isn’t Kosher. It’s not right.” I continued to see it in little incidents like that. More frequently after a while. It broke my heart. I was seeing elements in my former party that didn’t reflect that to the point that finally I couldn’t tolerate it personally anymore so I became an independent, after talking to Joe Lieberman. I love him to death. He’s been very nice to me. I came close to being picked to run for Vice President with his friend John McCain and I got to know him during this time of my life. I felt comfortable reaching out to Senator Lieberman. I asked him, you’ve been where I think I’m about to go. And I just wanted to seek your advice. So I said, how was it going independent? He said, “Charlie, if you do it, you’ll feel so liberated. I’m paraphrasing, he said if you’re even thinking about it, then you should do it. So, I did. That week. It was April 2010. I was horribly collapsing in the poll anyways so it was kind of convenient being honest. But, it was consistent with my soul and my heart. Partially (it was politically) of course. But, primarily my heart couldn’t take it anymore. Of course, I lost. It worked out the way it’s supposed to. Beshert. Is that the right word?”
JI: Do you believe support for Israel is declining in the Democratic Party?
Crist: “I don’t think it’s dis-unifying. There are always differences of opinion. That’s fine and healthy. I love Israel. I committed in the race for governor, the one I won, that if I won that my first trade mission would be to go to Israel. And so I did that in May, 2007 with Robert Wexler. We went to Tel Aviv, which reminded me of Florida because you are right on the coast. The food is amazing. The people are amazing. Afterwards, we went to Jerusalem. There is no place like it. I love to go there. I think Democrats, and many Republicans, are so strongly aligned and care about the State of Israel. As Floridians, we do particularly. We have an enormous Jewish population in my state and I’m very proud of that. When I became governor, with Ted Deutch, he was Senator Deutch, in the Florida State Senate, a wonderful man, we had a divestment bill that would not have our retirement funds invest anything that would somehow favor Iran. I was the first governor who did that. The State of Florida and the State of Israel have a unique bond. Probably the most moving thing I did on the trade mission to Jerusalem was visit Yad Vashem. I love Judaism, anything that I can do to strengthen, protect and help. It’s a democracy surrounded by a lot of people who may not be all that friendly to Israel.”
JI: In addition to your political views, is there an element to your personality or schedule that many in Washington or your constituents may not know?
Crist: “I swim every morning. Everybody knows that my hair is white. My father’s parents name was Cristodoles. He immigrated from Cyprus. My father’s mother Mary Khoury immigrated from Lebanon from a village north of Beirut around 1912. They met in Pennsylvania. When my grandfather came in, he was only 14. 14. I’m 60 and I can’t think about going on a boat by myself around the world. But, he did it.”
JI: Who is your role model?
Crist: “First and foremost, my father. My best friend. My first call every morning. I love him with all of my heart.”