Charlie Crist insists his newfound wealth hasn’t changed him

Charlie Crist’s loss in a U.S. Senate race was a crushing defeat, but it did wonders for his checkbook.

After the 2010 election ended his nearly two decades in office, Crist set about making some real money for the first time in his life. Floridians are now finding out how well the 57-year-old St. Petersburg resident is doing.

He’s a millionaire who made more than $700,000 last year, far more than he did in all four years as governor.

“I’ve been blessed,” Crist said, “and I’m grateful for it.”

Crist’s stock and consulting fees as a former board member of The St. Joe Co., a Panhandle real estate firm and one of the state’s largest landowners, earned him a tidy $378,000 last year. He made $297,000 at Morgan & Morgan, the personal injury law firm.

The checks kept rolling in as Crist’s book about leaving the Republican Party earned him another $125,000. He got a $50,000 consulting fee from Coastal Construction Group, a Miami contractor owned by a friend, Tom Murphy, who also serves on St. Joe’s board (Murphy’s son, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-West Palm Beach, is a friend of Crist’s).

In financial documents he filed Monday as a candidate for governor, Crist also listed a state pension of nearly $46,000. A frequent critic of utilities, he noted nearly $91,000 in stock in TECO Energy, the corporate parent of Tampa Electric.

“Isn’t that funny?” Crist said. “My Dad recommended it. I think they still pay a dividend. I took his advice, but I don’t care about money. I don’t focus on it. Never have.”

Despite his newfound affluence, Crist insists he’s still the same guy who shops at Publix, drives a leased Jeep Cherokee and has never owned a home. His rented condo is in Bayfront Tower on Beach Drive in downtown St. Petersburg.

“It scares me to spend money,” Crist said. “I stick it in the bank.”

As governor and member of the state Cabinet, Crist’s votes could affect the interests of St. Joe and TECO Energy.

Crist has benefited from his friendship with the chairman of St. Joe’s board, Coral Gables investor Bruce Berkowitz. He is founder and CEO of Fairholme Capital Management, a hedge fund, and St. Joe’s largest shareholder.

Berkowitz also has donated $250,000 to Crist’s campaign for governor.

Crist said he met Berkowitz at a Miami restaurant after he lost the Senate race. “He said, ‘A former governor on the board will be great for us, and good for you,’^” Crist recalled.

Crist’s Democratic primary opponent, former Sen. Nan Rich of Weston, said little about Crist’s income and investments, and was more critical of him for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from plaintiffs’ lawyers.

“He takes huge sums of money from a lot of special interests,” Rich said. “I don’t think you can call yourself a ‘people’s governor’ when you’re relying on that kind of money.”

Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida, a group that’s often at odds with large real estate developers, said he was not concerned about Crist’s ties to St. Joe Co.

“Crist is not a wealthy man. I can’t begrudge him having put together the limited amount of money that he has,” said Draper, who recalled that Crist, as governor, did not support a land-use plan St. Joe pushed. “I think he was generally viewed as a pro-environment governor.”

Bill Newton of the Florida Consumer Action Network, a Tampa-based group often critical of big business, also defended Crist.

“Crist is a populist,” Newton said. “I doubt he would sign or veto a bill based on his investment strategy.”

Crist is hardly the first former governor to discover a wealth of opportunity after leaving office.

His predecessors became partners at leading law firms, joined the boards of major companies or found lucrative teaching careers at universities.

The difference for Crist is that he is trying to forge a comeback as a Democrat who’s a true man of the people with, as he puts it, “a passion for the little guy.”

Crist has criticized Gov. Rick Scott for flying in his family’s private jet to do his job. In response, Republicans have pounced on Crist’s oft-repeated claim of living “paycheck to paycheck” while making about $130,000 a year as governor. They say he’s trying to make it look like he faces the same financial pressures as ordinary people.

Republicans are calling on Crist to release his and his wife Carole’s income tax returns as Scott and his wife Ann did this week, and the GOP launched a web site, www.charliestaxreturns.com.

“If Charlie Crist cares about transparency, he will release his and his wife’s returns,” Republican Party spokesman Susan Hepworth said.

Crist said Wednesday that he and his wife file separate returns, and he will disclose his own returns within the next 10 days, but not his wife’s. He also said that if elected, he would sell company stocks he owns to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

At a roundtable with teachers in Tallahassee on Monday, Crist struck a self-conscious tone about his newfound wealth and set the record straight about living week-to-week.

“I do my own shopping. I’m just a regular guy,” Crist told the teachers. “I, most of my life, have lived paycheck to paycheck. Now lately it’s gotten better for me, so it’s not quite like that any more. But that’s only been the past three years. So I get it. I’ve walked in your shoes.”

Crist’s pension credits include eight years as a legislator followed by a decade of receiving six-figure salaries as education commissioner, attorney general and governor.

The GOP’s Hepworth criticized Crist for collecting a pension of $45,588, more than what many rank-and-file retirees receive.

“That’s a lot more than a teacher ever gets,” she said.