WASHINGTON - Shortly after the 115th Congress convened, Sen. Marco Rubio invited the Florida House delegation to his office. “Of course I went,” said Rep. Charlie Crist. “I thought it was gracious.”
“I just listened and at the end, I thanked him. He appeared sort of stunned,” Crist recalled. “I said, ‘You may not know this, but your office in Orlando and I are working on getting a Vietnamese husband to America to be with his wife.”
I ran into Crist on the day the House was voting on the Obamacare repeal. He wandered into the lobby, where reporters hang out, looking a little lonely. “I’m just a freshman,” he said, in classic Crist way, when asked how he was adjusting.
“It’s different. Being governor was amazing. But to be in Washington and to have the honor of representing my home, what’s better than that? Any service is an honor.”
Crist, 60, once had White House dreams and was poised to breeze into the U.S. Senate in 2010 until the charismatic young Rubio, 45, upended his world.
But years later, here was Congressman Crist telling an uplifting story of collaborating, in a way, with his nemesis.
It begins with Rep.-elect Crist, in flip-flops, shorts and FSU jacket, walking into Northeast Gold & Diamond Center in St. Petersburg around the Christmas holiday. He learned how the proprietor’s daughter had been struggling to reunite with her newlywed husband from Vietnam. The man couldn’t obtain a visa to travel to the U.S.
“I guess they didn’t think it was a legitimate wedding,” Crist said of the State Department. “I was like, ‘That’s terrible, is somebody helping you?’ They said, ‘Well yeah, Senator Rubio’s office in Orlando, some lady there.’ ”
“Well,” Crist replied, “let’s call her up.”
The call was on speaker.
“My name is Charlie Crist, I’m not sworn in yet. I’m a new member of the House and I just talked to this family.”
The woman in Rubio’s office was startled. “She said, ‘Did you say Charlie Crist?’
“Like the former governor?”
The woman, Mercedes Ayala, confirmed she was working on the case and Crist offered to help. “She said, ‘We’ll step it up.’ ”
A month later, Crist went back into the jewelry store, which also does clothing alterations, to get a jacket fixed.
“I know the family,” he said from the House gallery. “I saw another young man there and I asked the mother, ‘Who’s that?’ She said, ‘That’s him.’ You mean the husband? ‘Yeah.
Dieu Van Huynh, 37, arrived in the U.S. on Jan. 25, more than two years after marrying Kim Nguyen, whose family owns the store. He’s learning English and working in the store.
“They kept giving us a hard time,” Nguyen said in an interview Thursday, referring to State Department officials and the strain of being apart from her husband. She reached out to Rubio’s Orlando office, his state headquarters.
“Please help us,” the email read. “I have called the National Visa Center so many times. They have no idea how long is the case going to be done. I called NVC probably about 50 times in United States and they tell me that the file is in Ho Chi Minh that I needed to call in Vietnam Ho Chi Minh and ask them what's going on with my case for my husband. I did that numerous times. I had to spend a lot of money on calling cards to make those calls to Vietnam. Then the people at the Embassy in Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh tells me to email them to contact them and inquire about my case. I wrote them many emails which I have all the records.”
Rubio’s office agreed to help, with the caveat it could take time. “They really helped out a lot,” Nguyen said.
So did, apparently, Crist’s photo.
Nguyen, 43, texted her husband photos of the December day Crist walked into the store and U.S. officials in Vietnam saw them. “They knew exactly who Charlie Crist was,” Nguyen said.
Hours later, she said, her husband was told to make the five-hour trip to Ho Chi Min City to get his Visa processed.
“I am so grateful for Mr. Charlie Crist and Senator Rubio to step in and help us,” she said.
Good job, I told Crist.
“No, good for him,” he said. “Great for him.”
--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times
Photo courtesy Kim Nguyen