Charlie Crist, almost unique among political figures of his stature, has never had a consistent inner circle of advisers at his side.
Ask anyone who knows the former Florida governor well — or as well as anyone can know the ever-sunny but often inscrutable Crist — and they will tell you he has two primary confidants: Carole Crist, his wife, and Dr. Charles Crist, his father.
“He keeps his cards very close to the vest,” said Eric Johnson, a South Florida Democratic consultant who worked on Crist’s unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid as an independent in 2010 and now is chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter. “He listens to everybody and takes in everybody’s advice, but he definitely has an inner compass and does call a lot of his own shots.”
That’s partly why in campaign after campaign, the relentlessly frugal Crist has hired a bare-bones staff. From routine press calls to requests for speaking engagements, Crist often handled them directly rather than having them filtered through an entourage of aides.
On the big-picture political questions, few Floridians better understand state politics than Crist.
“If Charlie Crist wasn’t in public office he would more than likely be a high-paid political consultant. He understands this stuff better than most people who get paid to do it,” said Democratic consultant Steve Schale.
But should Crist run against Gov. Rick Scott on new Democratic terrain, he will be leaning on a select group of counselors while having to keep some of his own political impulses in check.
So whom does Crist, 56, rely on for political guidance, as he positions himself to launch what would be the most extraordinary political comeback in Florida history?
When you’ve spent your life as a Republican politician and now want to succeed as a Democratic politician, there are lots of new people to meet.
When Crist recently got together with Fedrick Ingram, president of Miami-Dade’s teachers union, Dan Gelber made the introduction, just as he has squired Crist to numerous meetings with influential Democrats lately.
This is the same Dan Gelber who used to show up at debates for the purpose of trashing Crist to reporters and talking up Crist’s 2006 Democratic gubernatorial rival, Jim Davis.
But today the former state senator from Miami Beach is a key player in what is essentially Crist’s exploratory campaign for governor. While he remains uncommitted in the governor’s race, Gelber said that as a legislator working closely with Gov. Crist he came to admire Crist’s leadership.
“In my relationship with him he always seemed pretty moderate. On big issues he always seemed to be closer to us than the Republicans,” said Gelber, who before the 2008 presidential election persuaded Crist to extend early voting hours to better accommodate long lines of voters.
Crist’s style is not to gather a large group around a table and survey them for advice. Rather, he tends to speak individually to people he trusts, weigh their advice, and then make up his own mind.
It’s a testament to Crist’s political smarts that most of the people he’s relying on lately are among the smartest and most plugged-in Democratic political minds in the state. Sometimes they offer advice, sometimes they make introductions. None is paid.