Thursday, November 23, 2017
Politics

Charlie Crist has been a congressman for only six weeks, and even his friends are grumbling

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ST. PETERSBURG — For a man who cares deeply about his image, newly elected U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist's press has been lousy lately.

He scheduled a Washington fundraiser to be held hours after being sworn in on Jan. 3. He missed one of his first votes — a measure expressing solidarity with Israel — because, he said, he mistimed his walk to the House floor.

He disappointed and/or infuriated assorted Democratic activists and elected officials by pushing out his well-regarded and plugged-in district director — less than two months after announcing his hiring.

He stirred grumbling about the slow opening of his main Pinellas County office and even generated vaguely sad mentions in a Beltway newsletter's regular "Spotted" feature. "Florida Democrat Rep. Charlie Crist last night sitting at the bar with a bottle of wine at Charlie Palmer Steak," Politico Playbook noted on Jan. 24. And on Feb. 7: "Florida Rep. Charlie Crist (D) on a Southwest flight from Tampa to DCA yesterday afternoon. A source said it looks like he was drinking a screwdriver; Finlandia vodka was spotted."

Crist, 60, began the job a little more than a month ago, and opening district offices can be tricky given federal requirements for secure Internet service and bureaucratic approval of leases.

What's striking about Crist is how quickly he and his wife, Carole, who is leading much of the decision-making and is being paid to oversee political activities, have generated widespread grumbling and head-scratching about his clumsy start in Congress, even among longtime friends.

"I'm a bit disappointed that we haven't heard from him in Pinellas County," said County Commissioner Janet Long, a fellow Democrat. "I can only compare the two, and right after David Jolly was elected he was calling my office and asking for a meeting and wanting to work together. We built a very tight relationship. I'm hoping we can build the same kind of relationship with Charlie."

Long lamented that Crist did not keep the "outstanding" Vito Sheeley as his district director and instead seems to be hiring staffers few people know. She and other elected Pinellas officials wondered why Crist did not opt to use the Seminole office used by Jolly and Young and already familiar to many Pinellas constituents.

Largo retiree Brenda Delamara last month visited Crist's congressional office in Midtown St. Petersburg (staffed so rarely that people working in the same St. Petersburg College campus don't know if it is still open) for help dealing with a Medicare glitch preventing her from receiving diabetes medication. She said Sheeley was helpful and on the ball. But after Sheeley left Crist's staff shortly thereafter, Delamara said, the office told her to call Sen. Bill Nelson for help instead.

"Nelson resolved it within a few days, but I shouldn't even have to go to Sen. Nelson. Having worked in government for 29 years, I know how this is supposed to work," the former Defense Department employee said, noting that the late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young's office once handled a similar issue for her without trouble.

Young's widow, Beverly Young, endorsed Crist over Republican incumbent David Jolly last year. She said she is already "heartbroken" that Crist's office has not been more responsive to her ongoing efforts to help veterans and that there is "no excuse" for Crist's main district office not to be fully operational by now.

"It's mid-February almost. He won the election in November and knew David Jolly had to vacate his office in January," Mrs. Young said. "Charlie Crist is being paid by taxpayers. This is his job. People need help, and this is wrong."

Crist spokeswoman Erin Moffet said the main district office at 696 First Ave. N opened two weeks ago, though on Thursday it still had unpacked boxes and wires poking out of walls.

''Congressman Crist has a laser focus on serving the people of Florida's 13th Congressional District," Moffet said. "With powerful committee assignments, a strong team in place, and our constituent services operation helping people every day, he will continue to deliver for the people of Pinellas County." Moffet provided his statements in response to a request to speak with Charlie or Carole Crist.

A big part of Crist's rocky start related to the sudden departure of Sheeley, 44, who had been outreach director on Crist's congressional campaign and before that worked for nearly four years as U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor's outreach director when she represented part of southern Pinellas County. Crist named Sheeley as his go-to guy in the district in late November and then in January sought to relieve him of the post. Sheeley said he never heard a specific complaint except that Mrs. Crist wanted him out.

"All I was told was she felt I hadn't been there for her," said Sheeley, who is now working for a political committee for Republican Jolly, who is considering running against Crist again in 2018.

Moffet said Sheeley was never fired; he resigned.

"It shows me a lack of character, and it shows me a lack of loyalty of those who have been loyal to him. . . . And I felt he was untruthful to me," said Vince Cocks, a volunteer on the Crist campaign who met with Crist recently about Sheeley.

Cocks said Crist, after questioning whether Cocks was recording their conversation, told him he knew nothing about it except what he read in the Tampa Bay Times.

Political staffers running afoul of a politician's spouse is nothing new, and it has happened several times with Mrs. Crist, whom Crist began paying as his campaign director late last year.

Longtime Crist loyalists were stunned after Crist's former finance director, Stephanie McClung, who had worked with Crist since 2009, abruptly departed his congressional campaign early last year. She said she could not discuss the circumstances because of a nondisclosure agreement.

People who work on Crist campaigns quickly come to learn that Charlie and Carole have little tolerance for negativity.

"Everything always had to be positive, no matter what the circumstance was," recalled Republican consultant Pablo Diaz, who was political director of Crist's 2010 U.S. Senate primary campaign against Marco Rubio and said he left over the campaign as the Crists disagreed with his concerns about the then-Republican governor antagonizing conservative activists.

Crist campaign aides come to learn that they should tread lightly if they want to point to problems.

"It's all positive," Mrs. Crist admonishes aides who suggest otherwise.

Contact Adam Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @AdamSmithTimes.

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