Charlie Crist's Fan: A Love Story

His opponents have laughed at it for years, but at Wednesday's gubernatorial debate, the Florida pol's favorite accessory stole the show.

Wilfredo Lee/AP

Charlie Crist’s fan was loyal. It stood by him through thick and thin.

When Crist was a young Florida Republican rising star, the fan was there. When Crist became governor, the fan came with him. When Crist was cast out of politics and his party—when he became an independent and then a Democrat—when he lost his allies, his friends, his donors, his career—when he embarked on his comeback, determined to show the voters he was a new man but also, deep down, just the same: The fan was there.

In 2006, when Crist was state attorney general, competing in a tough Republican gubernatorial primary, the fan accompanied him onstage for a debate. It was August in Poinciana, a swampy Central Florida town south of Orlando, and the air was thick with moisture. His opponent, Tom Gallagher, looked at Crist’s fan and said to the moderator, “That’s not fair. Get another fan in here or I’m walking out.” The debate was delayed several minutes until a second fan could be found.

Gallagher was rattled. Maybe it was the fan. Crist won the election.

When Governor Crist prepared to hold a press conference, his staff got there first to set up the fan. When he went to Europe on a trade mission, he spent $320 on portable electric fans. When he came to a television station for an interview, he brought the fan, stationing it just below the camera on its little built-in stand, pointed upward toward his body. It didn’t matter if it threatened to drown out what he was saying—the fan stayed. “That background noise is a fan the governor apparently travels with,” an anchor for West Palm Beach’s WPEC explained on-air after a 2010 interview with the governor. “He travels with his fan to make sure he doesn’t get sweaty."

The people around Crist came and went, but the fan was always by his side. For a long time, Crist was a bachelor. He lived, after leaving the Governor’s Mansion, in a little rented condo in St. Petersburg, where he grew up. He didn’t have any pets. He had the fan.

The fan has been part of Crist’s entourage since he ran for education commissioner in 2000, according to one longtime Florida political player. It became a running joke among the Florida press corps, but Crist didn’t try to hide it. When Crist wrote his memoir last year, the fan entered on page 3. There he is, giving a speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. It's the pivotal moment in establishing his new political identity, and he is not alone: “A small fan was whirring at my feet," he wrote. "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.” On the subsequent book tour this spring, the fan was with Crist at every stop, humming by his feet as he gazed into voters’ eyes and Sharpied their names on the flyleaf.

Was the fan Crist’s secret strength, his unfair advantage? Is that why his opponents wanted so badly to take it away from him? Perhaps it served a greater purpose than simply keeping the trim, tanned, never-a-hair-out-of-place politician from perspiring in the Florida heat. Perhaps it gave him a psychological edge—the familiar, friendly buzz, the caressing breeze.

On Wednesday night, Rick Scott tried to separate Crist and his fan. The two men were about to begin their penultimate debate, and there it was, waiting for Crist under the podium. Scott, the incumbent Republican governor, whom Crist is trying to unseat to get his old job back, put his foot down. He wasn’t going to go onstage with that thing. It was, he insisted, against the rules.

So Crist went onstage by himself. With the television cameras rolling and the fan humming beneath him, he stood at his podium. Scott’s podium on the other side of the stage stood empty. The debate’s emcee, Eliott Rodriguez, told the audience with a bewildered air, “Somehow, there is a fan there. And for that reason, ladies and gentlemen, I am being told that Governor Scott will not join us for this debate.”

Was it in the rules or not? Crist’s campaign produced a signed copy of the debate contract to which a single handwritten footnote was affixed: “*with understanding that the debate hosts will address any temperature issues with a fan if necessary.” If you knew Crist, you believed it: He would make sure he had that fan.

Crist looked out at the crowd in the Broward College auditorium as the moderators dithered. He beamed. “Are we really going to debate about a fan?” he said. “Or are we going to talk about education and the environment and the future of our state? I mean, really.” The crowd roared.

Six minutes late, Scott gave in and took the stage. The candidates, two practiced, polished pols, jabbed at each other. But the fan was all anyone could talk about. One well-placed Florida Republican told the Miami Herald that Scott might have just lost the election, and demanded he fire whatever consultants had allowed it to happen. The moderators, seeing the social-media chatter about the fan, even asked a question about it before the debate was over. “Is there anything wrong with being comfortable?” Crist replied with a grin.

For years, his enemies had mocked Charlie Crist’s fan. But now, at last, the fan had the last laugh. The fan stayed.

The fan won.