Thank you!” I called out to the massive crowd in front of me. “What an incredible night! Optimism is in the air.” I was deep inside enemy territory. That’s what my old friends were telling me. It was Thursday, September 6, 2012, a couple of minutes after 8:30 p.m., and I had never stood before a throng so huge: more than twenty thousand men and women, a loud and raucous mix of anticipation and fun, in the TV glare of the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina—every age, race, region, and hat style you could imagine. Most of them were jammed onto tiny folding chairs. Others were crowding the narrow aisles. As I peered over the top of an oversize, wooden podium, I could see hundreds—was it thousands?—of white‑on‑blue Obama‑Biden posters and many, many pole signs. “MINNESOTA.” “TENNESSEE.” I found “FLORIDA” off to my right. Halfway back in my home‑state delegation, one poster said “I‑4 Obama,” a little play on the highway that connects Tampa and Daytona Beach, always a crucial swing‑vote corridor. But as I moved through my opening pleasantries, I have to say, the applause sounded a little tepid to me.
I got the distinct feeling that the audience was holding back. It was as if all these people were taking a careful measure of me, trying to decide whether I’d fully earned the right to be here.
Were they happy to see me? Were they asking themselves, “Who the hell is this guy? Who invited him?” I hadn’t seen any polling data or focus group reports. But I’d been around this business long enough to know: People with résumés like mine weren’t supposed to speak at Democratic National Conventions. This wasn’t the way that game was played.
I’d been the low‑tax, pro‑life, pro‑ gun Republican governor of Florida. As a young state senator, I’d been such an anti‑crime crusader, people called me “Chain Gang Charlie”—and I considered it a compliment. Heck, I’d named my boat Freedom. Was that Republican—or what? I’d risen through the ranks from education commissioner to attorney general to governor, always running with an “R” next to my name. In the 2008 presidential campaign, I’d worked diligently for John McCain, even making his short list for vice president. At various points along the way, I had referred to myself as a “Ronald Reagan Republican.”
And here I was with a prime‑time, Thursday‑night speaking role at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, preparing to sing the praises of Barack Hussein Obama. That’s how many of my old party mates liked referring to him, as if he weren’t just a president from a different party but a highly suspect, otherworldly creature and probably a Muslim too.
No, this wasn’t politics as usual.
I was addressing this Democratic crowd the same night the president was. My slot was after Caroline Kennedy and just before John Kerry and Joe Biden. The big addresses from Michelle and Barack Obama were coming right after that. You’d have to look long and
hard in the annals of American politics to find a fish more out of water than I was that night.
I’d even joked with my wife, Carole, when I first got the call from Jim Messina, who was managing the president’s reelection campaign: “Didn’t anyone do a background check?”
I wasn’t even invited when Republican delegates gathered August 27 to 30 for their national convention in Tampa, just a short drive from my rented condo in St. Petersburg. Why would I be? I wasn’t one of theirs anymore. They were brimming with Tea Party fervor and anti‑Obama zeal. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have enjoyed what I had to say.
“What an honor to be here with you to stand with President Barack Obama,” I told the Democratic crowd.
A small fan was whirring at my feet. I always like a fan at the podium when I give a big speech. You have no idea how hot those TV lights can be. But I could still feel tiny beads of sweat forming on my forehead. I don’t usually get nervous giving speeches. My heart was pumping now.
Before I got to the business at hand, I wanted to address the elephant in the room. Never before, I thought, had that old expression been quite so apt.
“Half a century ago,” I began, “Ronald Reagan, the man whose optimism inspired me to enter politics, famously said that he didn’t leave the Democratic Party, but the party left him. Well, listen, I can relate. I didn’t leave the Republican Party. It left me.”
It had been a while, I was sure, since Ronald Reagan was quoted so approvingly at a Democratic convention. “Then again,” I added, “my friend Jeb Bush recently noted Reagan himself would have been too moderate, too reasonable for today’s GOP.”
People clapped at that. Right there, I could feel it. I had the
attention and the support of the room. We might have come from different places. But I could tell—and they could tell—we were talking the same language and talking the same way. It had taken me a while to get here, but I felt thoroughly at home.
I had already changed my registration from Republican to Independent. By the time the year was over, I would officially be a Democrat. But despite those changing labels, I felt the same way I always had. I had the same basic values. I’d never been an ideologue. It was just that, in an ugly bow to extremism, the party I’d grown up in had abandoned people like me. And the place I was heading, I was happy to see, wasn’t run by enforcers with mandatory checklists.
Standing at the podium in Charlotte, I wanted to share with the Democratic delegates some of the causes I cared most about. Not the divisive, hot‑button issues so many Republican politicians seemed suddenly obsessed with—birth control, abortion, gays, and guns. Not the nasty caricatures that fueled so much of talk radio and cable TV news. Just as I always had, I wanted to talk about issues that touch all people’s lives, whatever their party might be.
So I did.
“We must create good middle‑class jobs so we can have an economy built to last,” I said. “We must rebuild our roads and bridges and improve our public schools. And particularly important to me and my state is the challenge of saving Medicare and Social Security so we can keep our promise to seniors.”
These shouldn’t be divisive issues at all.
“As a former lifelong Republican,” I said, “it pains me to tell you that today’s Republicans—and their standard‑bearers, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan—just aren’t up to the task. They’re beholden to my-way-or-the-highway bullies, indebted to billionaires who bankroll ads and are allergic to the very idea of compromise. Ronald
Reagan would not have stood for that. Barack Obama does not stand for that. You and I won’t stand for that.”
I was laying everything right out there. It sure felt great. I had to mention the hug.
“One of the president’s first trips in office brought him to Fort Myers, Florida, where I was proud to embrace him and his plan to keep our teachers, police, and firefighters on the job,” I said. “Well, that hug caused me more grief from my party than you can ever imagine.”
Embracing Barack Obama had made me an instant pariah in the eyes of some Republicans. Yet the president and I, coming from different places, had been on similar journeys all along.
“I’ll be honest with you,” I told the Democratic delegates. “I don’t agree with President Obama about everything. But I’ve gotten to know him, I’ve worked with him, and the choice is crystal clear. When he took office, the economic crisis had already put the state of Florida on the edge of disaster. The foreclosure crisis was consuming homeowners, the tourists we depend on couldn’t afford to visit, and our vital construction industry had come to a standstill. President Obama saw what I saw: a catastrophe in the making. And he took action.”
Then I delivered the formal endorsement I had come to Charlotte to make.
“When I look at President Obama,” I said, “I see a leader with a cool head, a caring heart, and an open mind, a president who has demonstrated through his demeanor and through his deeds that he is uniquely qualified to heal our divisions, rebuild our nation, and lead us to a brighter future together.
“That’s the leader Florida needs. That’s the leader America needs. And that’s the reason I’m here tonight, not as a Republican, not as a
Democrat, but as an optimistic American who understands that we must come together behind the one man who can lead the way forward in these challenging times: my president, our president, Barack Obama!”
And the people went wild.
It felt so liberating, saying those words to that crowd on that night and being received the way that I was.
There was one last line in my written text I had planned to end my speech on. It was a funny line, I thought, a little self‑deprecating and 100 percent accurate. But the reaction to what I’d said was just so warm and so genuine—and so earsplittingly loud—those final fourteen words felt almost gratuitous. The point had been made and received. I had done as well as I could.
“If you see the president before I do,” I was going to say, “give him a hug for Charlie!”
But I didn’t use the line. I didn’t think I needed to. Whatever hug the president needed had already been delivered by me and by this grateful Democratic crowd.
I waved. I said, “God bless you, God bless America, and thank you so much.” Then I left the stage.
What a ride these last few years have been!
I have gone from lifelong Republican to the Nowheresville of being an Independent to finally becoming a Democrat. Some of my friends tell me I’ve always been a Democrat—it just took me fifty‑six years to figure that out. I wish someone had mentioned something sooner. Everything was rolling smoothly along. I loved being governor of Florida, helping people, high in the polls, showing the warring parties of Tallahassee how they could actually get along. Then,
I had this notion about bringing our bipartisan Florida values to Washington. It was just about then that a band of crazy extremists hijacked the party I’d grown up in. Pedal to the metal, they drove it off an ideological cliff. I got banged up riding with these unsavory characters. But thankfully, I leapt to safety just in time. Now I’m happier than I’ve ever been and feeling thoroughly at home.
Along the way, I got to see American politics as few others have seen it—up close and personal at the very highest levels and from both sides of the aisle. I’ve been appalled at the cynicism I have seen as my former party slipped into the clutches of the Tea Party haters and extremists of various sorts. I have felt sympathy and then sadness as people I’d been close to decided they had to accommodate these rising demands. But I have been truly inspired by the goodness in the hearts of the vast majority of people. I have learned some unexpected lessons along the way—about where we are headed as a nation and the great possibilities that are ahead for us.
That night in Charlotte—me! addressing a Democratic convention!—was one amazing stop on this unexpected journey. But it didn’t start in Charlotte, and it certainly didn’t end there. And as I look to the future, here’s the part I’m most excited about: I’m convinced this journey of mine has truly only begun.
Reprinted by arrangement with DUTTON, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Charles Joseph Crist, Jr, 2014.