ST. PETERSBURG — Former Gov. Charlie Crist came home to St. Petersburg on Saturday with a book tour that also looks a lot like a campaign tour for governor.
Crist drew a good crowd in his hometown, estimated at several hundred by Ray Hinst, owner of the venerable Haslam’s Book Store, including a gang of Crist family and close friends.
“I’m really grateful to God to have the opportunity to run for governor and honored and pleased to be a Democrat,” Crist told a group of reporters as he signed copies of his political autobiography, “The Party’s Over -- How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat.”
The crowd also included a handful of Republican Party protesters waving signs saying, “Charlie ran away” -- a reference to his 2010 decision to run for the Senate, unsuccessfully, instead of running for re-election as governor. As Crist arrived at the event, his wife Carole handed out signs saying “Common Sense” and “The People’s Governor” to counter-protesting supporters.
Veteran state Sen. Jack Latvala, one of the most prominent elected Republicans from Pinellas County, also showed up at Haslam’s to deliver a GOP response to Crist’s message. The Republicans have shadowed Crist on every stop of his book tour so far, including nine stops in Florida so far and several national broadcast interviews.
Latvala, like Crist, is known for occasional moderate stances on issues like the environment that often have put him at odds with more conservative fellow Republicans.
“I don’t like everything the Republican Party does either, but I’ve chosen to stay and try to change it,” he told reporters. He said Crist as governor seemed uninterested in the details of governing -- “He wasn’t paying attention.”
Asked whether he believed his own attempts to make the party more moderate were working, Latvala said Gov. Rick Scott’s “attitudes on a lot of things have evolved” since Scott won the office in 2010 as a tea party champion. He also repeated the GOP mantra of blaming Crist for the job losses in Florida during the global economic meltdown of 2007.
Asked whether he was on a book tour or campaign tour, Crist said, “I think some people interpret it as both, but for me it’s a book tour. But I happen to be running for governor, too, so there is that.”
There’s no law against a political candidate writing and promoting a book, but using a publishing company’s assets or money for political campaigning could run afoul of elections law.
The St. Petersburg stop was the last announced so far, but Crist said, “We’re just going to keep right on going – probably Tampa, Bradenton, Lake County.’’
Crist said he didn’t know how many books have been sold so far, but, “It looks pretty good to me – we’ve had good turnouts wherever I’ve been.”
The book includes few dramatic political revelations, but some interesting insider stories:
♦ Crist says that shortly before the 2010 Senate election, he was told that a deal had been engineered for Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek to drop out of the race. Former president Bill Clinton reportedly tried to convince Meek to drop out. If that had happened, it would have increased the chances for Crist, running as a no-party candidate, to defeat Republican Marco Rubio, who won with slightly less than 50 percent of the vote in the three-way race.
♦ He describes an obscene phone tirade from George W. Bush’s political mastermind Karl Rove after Crist declined to change his campaign schedule to appear with Bush at an event in Pensacola on the eve of the 2006 election, when Crist won the governor’s office. Bush’s popularity at the time was low; Crist says he stayed with a plan for a campaign stop in Jacksonville with McCain.
♦ Crist says, contrary to some published reports, that he was neutral in the 2008 Republican presidential primary until shortly before he decided to endorse John McCain, on the eve of the Florida Republican primary election in January 2009. Allies of Rudy Giuliani have said Crist broke a promise to endorse Giuliani. The endorsement is credited with helping McCain win the nomination.
♦ Crist criticizes the running mate McCain did select, Sarah Palin, describing her as standoffish and unfriendly.
The crowd was mainly Democratic, but Ann Pollard of St. Petersburg said she’s a no-party voter who likes Crist because, she said, “He stood up for the teachers.”
A nurse with the state health department, Pollard said, “I’d like to have him for my boss.”
Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Bob Henriquez, a Democrat and former legislator, said Crist’s story of how the GOP rejected him because of his famous hug with President Barack Obama in 2009 “shows how petty and extreme politics has become.”