Long talked of for some kind of higher office, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater says he won’t be on any ballot next election cycle.
Atwater recently confided to members of the Florida Council of 100 that he wouldn’t be seeking another elected office as his term-limited time as CFO winds down. He’s set to step down in 2018, after two terms in the Cabinet post.
Instead, Atwater, a former North Palm Beach legislator and Senate president, said he’s looking forward to serving the state outside the confines of a political office.
Atwater’s move comes as angling to succeed Gov. Rick Scott is already developing. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is viewed as a certain candidate and front-runner, while former state House Speaker Will Weatherford said he’s also making up his mind.
Supporters of Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, who spearheaded the medical marijuana ballot effort in Florida, are also trying to get him to run, likely as a Democrat.
Meanwhile, Scott is seen as a challenger to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat, who is up for re-election in 2018.
Atwater, 58, last year stayed out of what was a short-lived scramble of Republicans seeking the U.S. Senate seat initially abandoned by Sen. Marco Rubio during his presidential run. Rubio was re-elected last Tuesday.
Atwater also made an unsuccessful bid for the presidency of Florida Atlantic University in 2014.
The race remains tighter in Florida but state Republican leaders – and most GOP candidates – steer clear of him.
“I’m spending most of my time being governor,” said Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who last week failed to attend a Trump rally in his Naples hometown and then cited a scheduling conflict for keeping him from another Trump event in Tallahassee.
But Scott, like many Republican leaders and campaign analysts, seem to view Trump now as having little chance of winning.
Sharing a stage with the polarizing nominee carries some political risk. Yet few Florida elected officials want to break with Trump and openly antagonize his voters, a dynamic similar to that which helped him blaze through the GOP presidential primary field.
Donald Trump capped a three-day Florida swing Tuesday with an evening rally that drew several thousand supporters in Democratic-leaning Tallahassee.
Attorney General Pam Bondi was the only statewide elected Republican to appear at the event, although Gov. Rick Scott, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater all support the presidential nominee.
Bondi urged Trump backers to vote, saying “eight years is enough,” of Democratic leadership in the White House.
When he took the stage, Trump relied on familiar lines accusing Democratic rival Hillary Clinton of wide-ranging corruption to fire up the crowd. But only occasionally were they move enough to start the chant of “lock her up” which courses through most Trump events.
Trump also dismissed polls showing that he was trailing in the polls, with only two weeks before Election Day. But he did use the tactic of warning his supporters that it was up to them to decide whether his campaign — a “movement” he called it — was a “waste of time, energy and money.”
Trump, though, concluded his half-hour speech on a more upbeat note, saying that his theme of fighting ISIS and sparking the economy was resonating with voters.
“We will win on Nov. 8,” he assured the crowd. “And we will protect every American and every American job.”
The league, headed by Palm Beach Gardens’ Pamela Goodman, sent a letter to the University of West Florida Board of Trustees opposing Sen. Don Gaetz’s candidacy for school president.
He’s one of four finalists for the post, with a selection committee set to meet again Thursday.
UPDATE:UWF’s Board of Trustees voted 9-4 Thursday to make the school’s provost and vice-president, Martha Saunders, the school’s next president.
The league battled Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, over legislative and congressional redistricting, an effort he chaired in the Senate, before he rose to presidency of the chamber. The league then led a contentious, three-year legal battle against the boundaries set by the Republican-led Legislature.
Testimony showed that Gaetz was among lawmakers who huddled with Republican Party officials and lobbyists over how to shape districts that could assure the GOP maintained command in Florida.
The league and other groups suing claimed actions by Republican leaders violated constitutional requirements that districts not favor or hurt incumbent lawmakers, or either major political party.
Courts eventually created the congressional and Senate district boundaries being used in this year’s elections.
In her letter opposing Gaetz, Goodman said he was part of a “devious conspiracy” to sidestep the Florida Constitution’s “Fair Districts” amendments, which the league supports.
“How can you possibly consider appointing as president of your university this man who thumbed his nose at the constitution and lied about it publicly? Is this the sort of role model you want for students, faculty, families and the community?,” Goodman wrote the UWF Board of Trustees.
“This is a man who, as a Senator and Chairman of the Senate Reapportionment Committee, took an oath to abide by the laws of The Florida Constitution. As Chair of this committee, maps were passed that were drawn without transparency and resulted in complete noncompliance to the law,” she added.
Gaetz’s candidacy is already opposed by UWF’s faculty and students have started a petition drive dubbed “Argos Against Gaetz.”
Gaetz is hoping to follow in the shoes of Florida State University President John Thrasher, who was chosen to lead that school in 2014. The same year, former Senate President Jeff Atwater, who was elected Florida’s Chief Financial Officer in 2010, failed in a bid for the presidency of Florida Atlantic University.
The Florida Leadership Victory Committee will be led by Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and is aimed at bolstering GOP grassroots efforts.
Voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts will be a top priority of the committee.
“Our nation’s economy hinges on this year’s election. We must all work to maintain Republican majorities at the local, state and federal level, and the grassroots effort here in Florida will be crucial,” said Atwater, a former North Palm Beach state legislator.
Altmaier’s selection came after another deadlock ensued between Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Scott over the selection. Atwater on Friday again recommended Delray Beach Republican Rep. Bill Hager, a former Iowa insurance commissioner, for the post but, as in two earlier meetings, Hager was a no-sale with Scott.
Scott’s own favorite applicant, Tampa-area Jeffrey Bragg, a retired insurance industry executive, was already rejected by Atwater. The governor and chief financial officer, who oversees the insurance commissioner’s office, must agree on a selection, under state law
Friday’s meeting was as awkward as the earlier attempts to settle on a candidate.
After Hager failed, Atwater’s fallback candidate, Deputy Commissioner Belinda Miller, also didn’t win Scott’s OK. So Atwater turned to Altmaier, who has worked at the Office of Insurance Regulation since 2008 and was among three applicants interviewed Friday by Scott and the Cabinet.
Altmaier impressed the governor and Cabinet — with all but Atwater joining Friday’s meeting by conference call — with his grasp of insurance markets,his ability to respond to a decision Thursday by the Florida Supreme Court seen as threatening to the workers’ compensation system, and his focus on the consumer.
“This guy is impressive,” Atwater said.
Altmaier will get a $165,000 annual salary. McCarty, the state’s insurance commissioner since 2003, was set to step down May 2, but earlier agreed to stay on to assist with the transition as hurricane season nears.
Scott and the Cabinet agreed to that offer Friday, but made the point that Altmaier is in command.
Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater told reporters he was sticking by his choice for the post, Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, who is a former Iowa insurance commissioner.
But Rick Scott’s Cabinet aides also made it clear during a meeting Wednesday that the governor still favored Jeffrey Bragg, a former Tampa-area insurance executive and federal terrorism and flood insurance administrator.
Scott and the Cabinet last month failed to reach consensus on who should replace outgoing commissioner Kevin McCarty, who is set to step down May 2. It basically came down to Hager or Bragg.
The all-Republican panel will get to try again next week.
“I feel very good about Rep. Hager’s application and his life experiences that I think make him a real well-qualified candidate for the position,” Atwater said. “I think it’s likely that as the conversation continues that I still feel very good about that candidate.”
While Atwater spoke in the Capitol rotunda following a news conference in which he unveiled a new program aimed at helping domestic violence victims deal with finances, Hager was just down the hall meeting with Scott.
Hager sought the meeting. And he got little more than the 10 minutes scheduled by the governor.
Following the sit-down, Hager told the Palm Beach Post that it was “congenial, constructive and positive.”
“I was very pleased to have a portion of the governor’s time,” Hager said, although he declined to go into detail on his exchange with Scott.
Hager did say it was “less (about) touting,” his skills than a chance for the two men to get to know each other better. He also said that he was not asked to present himself “in contrast with anyone.”
Hager declined, however, to say whether Bragg’s name came up.
For his part, Atwater defended the extended search for a new commissioner, saying it was a critical position and that the state has been flooded with qualified candidates. He’s still interviewing applicants and didn’t rule out the possibility that other names could still be brought into the mix at next week’s Cabinet meeting.
McCarty is leaving after 13 years in the job and his departure is slated a month before the start of hurricane season. If his successor isn’t chosen soon, Atwater said McCarty could be asked to stay on a little longer — or an interim could be picked.
“I’ll visit that when the times comes,” Atwater said.
Asked whether he’d feel comfortable entering hurricane season without a commissioner, Atwater offered a nuanced answer.
“I would feel uncomfortable with a prolonged process that I did not think was going to have us someone there on either a permanent basis or that was skilled and there today who could help us through hurricane season,” he said.
UPDATE: McCarty in a letter Wednesday told Scott and the Cabinet that he will stay on 45 days after his successor is chosen “to facilitate a smooth transition” with hurricane season approaching.
“As I have said before, I am thrilled and honored to be the CFO of Florida,” Atwater said in a statement released by his longtime political consultant Brian Hughes in response to a query by The Palm Beach Post. “Despite the gracious words of encouragement from supporters and friends to once again consider a different path, I still believe the best place for me to serve the people of Florida is as their CFO.
“I enthusiastically tackle the duties of my office every day and will continue these efforts to make certain government at all levels is held to the highest standard and is accountable to the people it serves.”
The Florida Cabinet is hitting the road for a meeting next week at the Jupiter campus of Florida Atlantic University.
Scheduled to appear at 8:30 a.m. next Tuesday in the Student Resource Building at 5353 Parkside Drive: Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and hometown favorite Jeff Atwater, the state’s chief financial officer and a North Palm Beach resident.