"So you may wonder. How did I get here?" he asked, regarding his three-year evolution from his life-long affiliation with the Republican Party in 2010 to announcing his affiliation with the Democratic Party last December — a process that has been significantly recounted in the Florida and national media.
"Well, Carol drove me," he deadpanned (referring to his wife, Carol Rome).
Those who follow Florida politics expect the final step in Crist's metamorphosis to be an announcement for his candidacy for the Democratic gubernatorial election in 2014. But Crist tamped down rumors awhile ago that he would make such a speech at the Kennedy/King Dinner. Nevertheless, there were expectations that he would put down a foundation for why he deserved the support of the rank and file in the months ahead.
While there were some fiery, passionate lines where he declared that the philosophies of the Democratic Party are what he believes in now, Crist's speech ended much quicker than some of the (rather long-winded) speeches that preceded his, and was about as long in duration as an appearance by a potential opponent in the race, Alex Sink.
In his brief address, which lasted less than eight minutes, Crist said that his favorite Florida governor was LeRoy Collins, a Democrat. He said he could relate to how a photo of Collins marching with MLK in Alabama in the mid 1960s came back to haunt him in 1968 when he ran for U.S. Senate. Crist was comparing the situation to the opprobrium he received from Republicans for his infamous embrace of President Obama in Fort Myers in the spring of 2009.
"He had the courage to stand with a civil rights leader, even though he knew it wasn't popular in his state," Crist said.
He then talked about why he's a Democrat, albeit a bit awkwardly.
"We heard it in the campaign last year, this party stands for the principle that you are not on your own. That party, that I am not a member of anymore, doesn't believe that and that's a sad commentary ... they believe everybody's all on their own, we believe that we're all in this together. We are in this together!" he affirmed. "And I don't care if you used to be governor, or you were CFO, or you were a member of Congress, or you were these wonderful people who are helping serve us tonight. We are in this together!" he repeated, generating the loudest cheer from the announced crowd of 320 people, which seemed smaller than previous Kennedy/King dinners in Tampa.
Referring to why he embraced Obama in Fort Myers — because of the president's stimulus plan that Crist always championed — the once and possibly future governor of Florida pivoted, saying that Florida needed those stimulus dollars just like it needed the $2.4 billion for a high-speed rail line from Tampa to Orlando that Rick Scott rejected early on in his administration back in 2011. Crist boasted that the Legislature convened for three special sessions to prove to the U.S. Department of Transportation that "we were wiling, ready and able" to accept those federal funds, but "then the new guy gets in and says no."
This led to his fiery windup, where he said he's an optimist, believing that "we can make a difference" more than a year from now when Florida selects its next governor.
"Like I said, it's not about any one individual, it's about all of us. It's about teachers, it's about firefighters, it's about law enforcement officers, it's about blacks, it's about whites, it's about gays, it's about straights," he said as the applause began rolling in. "It's about wherever you came from, you're welcome to this party. This is the big tent party. This is the people's party. This is what Florida is all about. I've seen it, I know it, I feel it. So let's go get it!"
And then it was over.
About a half hour earlier, Alex Sink came to the podium, where she talked about the party's 2002 nominee, her late husband, Bill McBride, who died right before Christmas last year. Sink publicly thanked several Hillsborough Democrats who rallied to McBride's side when he opted 11 years ago to knock off the front-runner that year for the nomination, former Attorney General Janet Reno. McBride would then go on to lose badly to Jeb Bush in the fall.
Sink told CL that life has been difficult without her life long partner around. As to whether she'll run again, the former Chief Financial Officer for Florida admitted, "I'm not ready emotionally, but I'll have to" make a decision, which she will do by "the middle of the summer."
There's no doubt that Charlie Crist has more work to do to earn the trust of many rank and file Democrats, several of whom told CL that they would not be attending the Kennedy-King event because of his presence on the program. When asked if she ever debated attending, Sink said, "I'm here every year. Why should I decide not to come?"
Chris Mitchell, who ran the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee until he recently stepped down to work for the state party, said he welcomes Crist to the Democratic Party and that his evolution is a prime example of how the state GOP has become "such an extreme party."
"We were very happy to have such a leader like Charlie Crist in the Democratic party, and it shows where are party is," Mitchell said. "It shows we're going to start to turn the tide in the state of Florida by attracting folks that might not have been with us, but now realize that the Democratic party is how that we get things done and turn this state in the right direction."
Optimistic words indeed for a party whose members believe that they have their best shot at capturing the governor's mansion in nearly two decades. But it might help if their potential candidates actually take the next step and enter into the ring.