The team of Charlie Crist and George LeMieux rose to the pinnacle of political power in Florida together in a relationship that provided immense benefits to both.
But in a Shakespearean twist, the Republican Party sicced LeMieux on his former political partner. LeMieux is a leading attack dog as Crist's campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor has gone from rumor to reality.
"If not for Charlie, I don't know that anybody would have ever heard the name of George LeMieux," said former Florida Senate Minority Leader Steve Geller, D-Cooper City, a Crist pal and campaign adviser. "In politics, loyalty is considered important, personal loyalty."
In the political world, Geller said, people noticed "the way George has treated his former mentor, his former close friend, the guy who made George LeMieux."
LeMieux, who lives in Lighthouse Point and works out of the Gunster law firm's Fort Lauderdale offices, where he is board chairman, came out swinging at his longtime friend and patron, calling Crist an opportunist with no principles. On a conference call with reporters he described Crist's transformation from Republican to independent to Democrat as "breathtaking," and called him a man who in just a few years has "changed positions so much that he's unrecognizable."
Crist said he was disappointed in LeMieux.
"George was a friend and a trusted colleague for much of my career in public service, and it was an honor to give my friend the honor of serving his state in the United States Senate," Crist said by email. He said he never let disagreements with LeMieux get in the way of "our trusted friendship. It is on that personal level that his words are most disappointing."
LeMieux said in an interview he's not merely towing the party line. "The easiest thing for me would be to stay quiet. But I'm a person who is a loyal Republican. I believe in our party ideals. And while it would be easy to be quiet, when I'm asked to speak out in this situation, I thought it was the right thing to do."
LeMieux's opinion is dramatically different than it was in 2009, when he described himself as a "Charlie Crist Republican" and extolled the "Charlie Crist way" of serving the public. The year before he was quoted as saying, "I want to do everything I can to help Charlie Crist. Whatever I can do now or in the future to make him successful, that's what I want to do."
Crist's position is that he didn't change; it was the Republican Party that veered far to the political right.
The evolution of Crist is well-known. He was elected state senator, education commissioner, attorney general, and governor as a Republican. But faced with losing the 2010 Republican primary for U.S. Senate, he bolted the party and ran as an independent, and lost. In 2012, he campaigned heavily for President Barack Obama's re-election and at year's end registered as a Democrat.
LeMieux, a former chairman of the Broward Republican Party, was Crist's deputy attorney general. He orchestrated Crist's successful 2006 campaign, prompting the new governor to dub LeMieux the "maestro." After a year as the governor's chief of staff, LeMieux left to practice law in Tallahassee, a valuable player as the man who knew Crist better than anyone.
And when U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., quit with 16 months remaining in his term, Crist appointed LeMieux to the seat, a move that greatly increased the value of the LeMieux brand. His status as a former U.S. senator, detailed on Gunster's website, makes him an especially valuable asset to the firm.
"Being a U.S. senator, that's a very elite club," said Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler. "He certainly owes a debt of gratitude to Charlie for that."
Seiler and Geller are both friendly with LeMieux and have worked closely with him — Geller appeared with him on a Tower Forum panel on gambling last week and Seiler recently lunched with him on Las Olas Boulevard — but neither expected him to be a source of anti-Crist commentary.
"I was kind of surprised to see George do that. George and Charlie were good friends. They were very, very close," Seiler said. "If it was me, I'd probably just try to stay on the sidelines."
Sean Foreman, a political science professor at Barry University, said it's naive to think loyalty is such a prized virtue. "Come on. This is politics."
Besides, Foreman said, LeMieux has to think about his own future. "No Republican is going to stand up for Charlie Crist. Even this guy who was his friend, who owes the greatest experience in life [the Senate seat] to Charlie Crist, still can't do that if he's thinking of his political future."
LeMieux said he still considers Crist a friend — "I wish him happiness. I just don't want to see him be governor as a Democrat" — though he didn't provide a heads-up that he'd be the Republican spokesman on the announcement day.
"We don't talk that frequently," he said, estimating two or three times in the past six months.
The circumstances are awkward, LeMieux said, but "it's important to recognize that the reason why it's awkward is because of his doing. He left our party."
Read the transcript of LeMieux's comments on the day Crist announced his comeback attempt at SunSentinel.com/BrowardPolitics.
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