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Feisty CFO race features Senate president and ex-lawmaker

TALLAHASSEE — In a statewide race that's received little public notice, chief financial officer candidate Loranne Ausley has resorted to a 400-mile bike ride to get her message out.

A lawyer and former Democratic state lawmaker from Tallahassee, Ausley is down in the polls and outgunned on TV nearly 3-to-1. She hopes when she finishes the ride Friday afternoon in West Palm Beach that voters will see she's a fighter.

"We've got to do something to show Floridians that I'm willing to do whatever it takes to end corruption in Tallahassee," the 46-year-old triathlete said.

Her opponent, Jeff Atwater, doesn't need to bike. The Senate president from North Palm Beach has led most polls, including a survey for the Times/Herald that shows him up by 13 points. He's run a safe campaign, touting his fiscal conservative views early in the race before trying to tag Ausley as a tax-and-spend liberal in the closing weeks.

Atwater holds a wide financial lead in this race, raising $3.8 million to Ausley's $1.6 million.

In a previous interview, Atwater called transparency "priority No. 1" and promises to reduce fraud, in part through a new panel to investigate Medicaid abuses. An Atwater spokesman said he was booked solid in the last week and was unavailable for an interview for this story.

This is only the second contested race for chief financial officer. Before 2003, the job was split into two offices: the comptroller and state treasurer. The winner replaces incumbent CFO Alex Sink, who opted to run for governor instead of seeking re-election.

The CFO oversees 2,700 workers at the Department of Financial Services and also handles insurance fraud, fire safety and auditing. The $128,972-a-year CFO sits on the Florida Cabinet, which has authority over such issues as land conservation and the state's pension fund.

The CFO campaign, while overshadowed, has been feisty. Ausley aired a TV commercial suggesting Atwater was involved in "pay to play" wheeling and dealing, citing the new, plush appeals court building as one example.

And Atwater's campaign has run a tough ad linking Ausley to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, highlighting votes by Ausley against tax cuts. At one point, a female narrator calls Ausley "a Tallahassee politician who wants total control of our money."

Both commercials were rated "False" by the Times/Herald's fact-checking website PolitiFact.

The Republican Party of Florida also sent out anti-Ausley mailers and maintained a "Costly Ausley" website.

The Republican Party has tried to use Ausley's eight years in the state Legislature against her by pointing out votes against GOP-led tax cuts, citing a one-month cut in the gasoline tax, the elimination of a tax on stocks and bonds and a 2007 push for larger homestead exemptions.

She was one of eight House members to vote against the gas tax cut and one of 20 lawmakers to vote against repealing the tax on investments. The property tax effort passed without a single Democratic vote.

"I've consistently voted to maintain the existing tax structure," she said.

Atwater, 52, has his own tax problem. His campaign pledges to "Cut taxes! And then, cut them again!" Ordering budget writers not to raise taxes in the 2010 session, he said, "We will not extract one more dollar from the small business owner of this state or from any Floridian's wallet."

But in 2009 Atwater's Senate unanimously raised the tax on cigarettes by $1 a pack. Lawmakers also hiked automotive and court fees. Total new taxes and fees that year: $2.2 billion.

Asked about this, Atwater spokesman Brian Hughes said he is a consistent fiscal conservative and "in tough economic times, he created balanced budgets."

As a legislator from 2000 to 2008, Ausley focused on children's issues and health care. She cites her leadership in creating the Children and Youth Cabinet as one accomplishment. It combines state agencies to improve children's health and education. She also points to voting against five of eight budgets, which she said had misplaced priorities.

Ausley is a sixth-generation Floridian whose family is well-known in North Florida. Her father, DuBose Ausley, is the founder of a large Tallahassee law firm and was a major figure in the Chiles administration, when he sat on the board that oversees state universities and panels that help select judges.

Atwater also has deep Florida roots. He's the great-grandson of Napoleon Broward, Florida's governor from 1905 to 1909. Broward County is named after him. Another famous relative is Gov. Cary Hardee, who served in the '20s and is the namesake of Hardee County.

His two-year term as Senate president was dominated by two issues, oil drilling and rail.

In the waning days of the 2009 session, Atwater says he rejected a plea from Gov. Charlie Crist to pass a House measure allowing near-shore oil drilling. He remained cool to the idea this year before Deepwater Horizon spiked any drilling talk.

Last winter, the normally even-tempered Atwater reportedly lashed out at a Crist official during tense negotiations over high-speed rail legislation. The rail plan had failed twice, and he was trying to hold together a shaky coalition of labor, Republicans, Democrats and state transportation officials. At his prodding the Senate passed a bill to kick-start an Orlando rail project and attract federal bullet train cash.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com.

Feisty CFO race features Senate president and ex-lawmaker 10/28/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 11:13pm]

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