“Is that Charlie Crist?” Virginia McNair, a local retiree, whispered from a few rows back at this predominantly Black church. “My favorite.”
“There’s a similarity, of course,” Crist told CNN. “Good experience, caring heart — I think people are hungry for that.”
“But I’m a Floridian,” he added. “And, God bless the President, but he’s from Delaware.”
“People are tired of the toxicity and partisanship,” Kennedy said at the event where Crist vowed to help Nicaraguan immigrants gain temporary protected states to remain in the US. “There’s so much meanness in the state right now. He’s similar to Biden.”
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome, and our party has a history of that insanity,” said Evan Ross, a Democratic consultant and Fried supporter with deep ties to South Florida’s large Jewish community. “Charlie Crist would be the pinnacle of it. If we’re crazy enough to nominate him, I think it will be one of our worst losses in state history.”
Asked what he had learned from his last statewide defeat, Crist responded: “Go to north Florida more.”
“All of Charlie’s success was by being nice. And that works until it doesn’t. The Republicans, they don’t play around,” said John Morgan, an Orlando lawyer and longtime friend of Crist. “There’s not a mean bone in Charlie’s body. DeSantis is a brawler with brass knuckles in one hand and a switchblade in the other.”
CNN has reached out to DeSantis’ campaign for comment.
Retail politics 101
Inside a Cuban coffee shop, Crist watched a worker roast beans and then introduced himself to patrons, including Matt Granat, a graphic designer from Palm Beach Gardens, who had identified the former governor from across the room. Out of earshot from Crist, Granat told CNN he was leaning toward voting for Fried.
“She strikes me as someone who has been a thorn in the side of DeSantis,” Granat said. “He’s switched parties, so I’m not sure about him.”
Ten minutes later, Crist returned after meeting a dozen other people and handed Granat a bumper sticker. “Matt, I want you to have this.”
Granat looked impressed: “Wow, he remembered my name.”
“You need name ID to do this thing in a state this size,” Crist later told CNN. “It’s hard to be recognized unless you’ve done what I’ve done.”
As Crist leans on old connections and a personal touch, Fried has built on an online following through late-night Twitter chats with her audience, sharply edited videos highlighting Crist’s Republican past and capturing viral moments on the campaign trail. The two will debate for the first and only time on July 21.
“Charlie has been doing this for 30 years. He has relationships that go back decades,” Fried said. “And a lot of my relationships are newer and people know I’m not a typical Democrat, meaning I stand up for things differently, I talk differently and I don’t play internal party politics. And unfortunately that’s what Charlie does. I don’t play games. He offers positions to people, he cuts deals, and I’m not willing to do that.”
“I’m talking to a lot of women from across the state,” Fried said. “They’ve all turned to me with a collective voice, saying, ‘You have to win, you’re our protector and our fighter.'”
Yet, Crist has been a reliable vote for abortion rights in the House, and he has secured endorsements from Barbara Zdravecky, the former CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, and Alex Sink, the state’s former elected chief financial officer who founded an organization that recruits and trains Democratic women who support abortion rights to run for office.
“I just think he’s certainly best prepared to be governor and do the things we need him to do,” said Sink, who lost a bid to succeed Crist as governor in 2010. “But also he’s best prepared to win and raise the money to wage the fight against DeSantis.”
“That name ID, of course, it can trigger different emotions, there’s that trust there and it reminds me of Joe Biden,” she said. “I definitely didn’t predict we would be there, but this is Florida.”
Leaning on Black voters
Much as Biden did, the Crist campaign is banking that his familiarity with Black Floridians will carry him through the primary. Black voters make up 30% of registered Democrats in the state and have been instrumental in determining the party’s nominee in past elections.
Despite earning the moniker “Chain Gang Charlie” for championing the return of chained prison work crews as a state senator in the 1990s, Crist has built long-standing connections with African American and Caribbean American state leaders. At the lunch with Haitian American Democrats, state Rep. Marie Paule Woodson, who was born in Haiti, gave a full-throated backing of Crist and laid out the stakes for November.
“If you don’t wake up and help Charlie be the next governor, every single one of you will be sitting in the back of the bus,” she said.
At a breakfast hosted by Florida Parents of Murdered Children, a predominantly Black advocacy group for families victimized by homicide, Crist received an unexpected turn at the lectern, when he called on the room to recognize a table of police officers. He promised as governor to put funding into law enforcement to stop “these horrible crimes that happen all over our country.”
“We know that sometimes, you know, strange things have happened in law enforcement like in Minneapolis, and George Floyd, but you’re good,” Crist said to the table. “You’re good.”
Asked by CNN about Crist’s remarks, Ayala, who is running for Florida attorney general, said: “Each person has to have their own message. If he’s the governor, he has to explain what he’s going to do, and I must explain what I would do.” She declined to say which Democratic candidate she intends to vote for in August.
Fried has earned the endorsement of the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida and the Florida College Democrats, signaling that her campaign has gained a foothold with the party’s grassroots.
“Doubtful,” Crist said. “Not for you.”
“I’ve heard Black voters say that,” Williams responded.
“That’s crazy, man,” Crist replied. He ultimately cut the interview shorter than the requested hour.
Williams this past week endorsed Fried. The two clicked during a wonky 70-minute interview that touched on Black farming, generational wealth and marijuana policy. In an interview last month with CNN, Williams said he felt Crist lacked authenticity and was underestimating DeSantis.
“He may hold a fond place in some African American voters’ hearts, but if you think that’s going to bring tailwinds to get people interested in your campaign, you’re wrong,” Williams said. “DeSantis will do a good job of messaging to a certain sector of Black voters because of economics. You have to address that.”
Crist shrugged off the criticism. Black voters know him, he insisted.
“I’m sorry he feels that way,” Crist said of Williams. “He has a right to his opinion. But he doesn’t know me.”