At first glance, the degrees separating a former Saint Leo University executive and a once-and-possibly-future Florida governor might seem so vast as to deny spanning.
In fact, the case of Judith Rochelle, the marketing director retired to Texas (where she’s become a prolific romance novelist), and the transmogrifying Charlie Crist, stares back from your passenger side rearview mirror: Objects are closer than they appear.
When I crossed the county line for The Tampa Tribune 15 years ago, I discovered Rochelle effervescing about Pasco. “It’s where everything is happening,” she said. “It’s the center of the universe.”
Well. Joe Kapp, then head football coach at the University of California-Berkeley, was known to rhapsodize similarly about Memorial Stadium, and the horizon beneath the sweep of his hand at least had the benefit of Alcatraz, Coit Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge.
If Kapp couldn’t be taken seriously with all that plus Ghirardelli Square going for him, what was there in Pasco, where the vistas lacked both notoriety and majesty, to support Rochelle’s boast?
Just this: The history-shaping dynamism of events. Monitoring the pulse of commerce, Rochelle imagined these welcome upheavals would take the shape of economic development that would, in turn, enrich the region’s cultural, recreational and spiritual lives.
But if Rochelle was prescient, her reasons were miscast. Politics, not industry, thrust Pasco into the spotlight and has kept it there most of the last 10 years. We recall then-Gov. Jeb Bush phoning the White House early on Election Night 2004 with news that Pasco endorsed his brother’s re-election, “And as Pasco goes,” he said, “so goes Florida.”
OK, so Pasco’s status as the bellwether county was fleeting, but since then we’ve elected the speaker of the Florida House of Representatives and his presumptive successor-once-removed, plus two concurrently serving state senators, one of whom has a decent shot at becoming Senate president.
That’s a pretty good decade’s work for any county, especially one of middling size stuck in the shadows of urbanized southern neighbors. But with the possible exception of launching the second four years of George W. Bush (whatever you may think of that), Pasco’s singular political achievement was the domino that triggered Monday and Crist, Democratic Party candidate for governor.
Four years ago, Crist, then a self-anointed “true-blue Reagan conservative” and “an anti-tax, pro-life, pro-gun Republican” was the prohibitive favorite to become the GOP nominee for Florida’s open seat in the U.S. Senate.
Never mind that the party’s grass roots, identifying strongly with the emerging tea party movement, were increasingly restless in the months after Crist embraced President Barack Obama on a Fort Myers stage. What governors want governors usually get.
Then in June 2009, the Pasco County GOP took its first-in-Florida straw poll. Marco Rubio, the little known former state house speaker, was 40 points down in most public opinion polls, but he’d electrified them at a recent Reagan Day Dinner, and they rewarded him, 73-9, granting permission to other county GOP clubs to act. By Labor Day Crist was cooked.
When Crist left the GOP the following spring, then was trounced in November 2010, everyone knew the true-blue Reagan conservative wouldn’t be coming back to the party of Reagan. Monday, grabbing opportunity with both hands, Mr. Anti-Tax, Pro-Life, Etc. re-emerged as the best hope for a left-leaning Democratic Party that has demonstrated, abundantly, that for it, winning is everything.
Whatever happens now almost is irrelevant, certainly as it pertains to Pasco’s location at the hub of all creation. Judith Rochelle noted it. Charlie Crist is living it.
Hello, center of the universe.