For the next 18 months, as the state battles its worst financial crisis in at least half a century, Florida will be led by a bunch of lame ducks.
Virtually every statewide leader in Tallahassee, beginning with Gov. Charlie Crist, is expected to be seeking higher office. Crist's anticipated announcement this morning that he's running for the U.S. Senate, rather than re-election as governor, will trigger one of the most chaotic and wide open election seasons ever in Florida.
"It's going to be like a fruit basket overturned," said Joyce Russell, past president of the nonpartisan Forum of the Palm Beaches where Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink spoke Monday amid buzz about her potential gubernatorial campaign. "I like consistency. This makes me nervous."
Besides Crist, the other three statewide elected officials expected to seek new office are Sink, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, all likely to run for governor.
Crist's bid could also leave the Republican Party of Florida in the lurch, putting at risk its control of the Governor's Mansion and Florida's Cabinet. And with Crist running for federal office, he no longer can raise corporate contributions or unlimited "soft money" for the state party. That means that the state GOP, already cutting staffers and facing fundraising challenges with the sour economy, loses its top money-raiser.
"It's a huge problem for Republicans, and it certainly plays into the other side's hands," said Republican consultant Brett Doster of Tallahassee. "It's going to put the party in a more defensive posture than it has been in a couple decades."
What's more, some Republicans are worried about their top contender for governor, McCollum. He has lost two of three statewide bids since 2000. Sink, considered the Democratic front-runner for governor if she runs, won her first and only statewide campaign in 2006.
"Bill McCollum is a great attorney general, but I think sometimes when individuals have run too many times statewide, you have to look at who's electable in a general election and then everybody needs to get behind that person in a primary," said Kathleen Shanahan, chief of staff to former Gov. Jeb Bush, who was encouraging Republican St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker to run for governor until Baker took his name out of the mix Monday.
"I know what it takes to be a governor and I know what it takes to be a strong contender against the presumptive nominee, Alex Sink, who is a very strong, dynamic leader in her own regard," Shanahan said.
Sink signaled she was ready to take McCollum on during her speech Monday in West Palm Beach. Though she didn't mention him by name, she assailed his decision to award a $2.5 million no-bid contract to his former campaign consultant to produce and air a television spot on Internet predators.
"I feel it's my job to be critical of giving favors, no-bid contracts — public officials do occasionally — to their political consultants and other cronies using state money," she told a crowd of about 450 people. "That's just wrong. You sent me to Tallahassee to call them like I see them and to call out these bad practices."
McCollum has defended the ad as a public service announcement. A spokeswoman, Sandi Copes, said Sink's office has also awarded contracts without competitive bids.
"The CFO should practice what she is preaching," Copes said.
The conflict over the ad foreshadows the scrutiny incumbents seeking other statewide offices will face until the 2010 election. Every trip on the public's dime, every taxpayer-funded initiative, will be scrutinized in the context of a political campaign.
"Public officials are going to be criticized if they are using the perks of their office to campaign for another," said Ben Wilcox, chairman of the board of Common Cause, a government watchdog group. "They should be educating the public on what they are doing, but they can't be grandstanding to receive recognition."
The same focus will be on Crist as he runs for the Senate while also serving as governor, and on the rest of the Cabinet as they juggle the demands of a campaign with their current jobs.
Sink faced questions last week for spending $2,500 to take a state plane and three staffers to Largo for a news conference touting a cost-cutting measure. She also took a state plane Monday to the event in West Palm Beach.
Sink called Monday for a state agency to post on its Web site the cost of elected officials' trips on state planes to "increase openness and transparency in Tallahassee."
A state ethics panel is reviewing Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp's use of state planes at a cost of $425,000, mostly to fly back and forth between Tallahassee and his hometown of Fort Myers. Two weeks ago, he had a state trooper drive him and his family to Georgia to attend a lobbyist's birthday party and a concert.
After the speech, Sink said she was attending the event as the state's fiscal watchdog, not as a potential candidate for governor.
"My top priority is continue to do the job Floridians sent me to do," she said. "I'm always going to put the people of Florida first."
But Sink's press releases now include a new, biographical paragraph that could easily go on a campaign flier. It reads, "A successful businesswoman with nearly three decades of experience in the private sector, Sink is serving her first term as Florida's CFO. As CFO, Sink's priorities include using her business experience to cut wasteful government spending, cracking down on financial and insurance fraud and reforming the state government's contracting practices."
Although Crist's top advisers have all but confirmed his Senate plans, the governor was quiet about his future Monday. He confirmed that his announcement today will be low-key, possibly to tamp down talk that his political ambitions are diverting his attention from his current job.
"Let's see what tomorrow's announcement brings," Crist said. "I think we'll issue a statement."
Crist's announcement is expected to be followed by a series of campaign launches for Cabinet positions. For attorney general, potential candidates include Kottkamp, former Deputy Attorney General George Lemieux and state Sen. Dave Aronberg.
Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Shannon Colavecchio contributed to this report. Beth Reinhard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.