TALLAHASSEE — With their political options widened, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Attorney General Bill McCollum wasted no time Wednesday ramping up their 2010 rivalry for governor.
Sink became the first candidate to officially enter the race to replace Gov. Charlie Crist, who announced Tuesday that he would forgo a second term and instead run for U.S. Senate. Sink, a moderate Democrat and former banking executive from Central Florida, is widely viewed as her party's strongest contender to seize the governor's mansion in a decade.
McCollum, a conservative Republican, said he will make his announcement for governor next week, but he and Sink squared off publicly at Wednesday's Cabinet meeting. In a series of testy exchanges, both forcefully pressed their positions on auto insurance and pension oversight as Crist sat between them, appearing to be the accidental referee.
Later, speaking separately to reporters, Sink and McCollum criticized each other's handling of contracts by their offices.
Sink repeated her criticism of McCollum for spending $2.5 million on a no-bid deal with an out-of-state political consultant who has worked on his election campaigns to produce public service ads warning Floridians about child sexual predators.
"The bottom line is, this is the state's money," Sink said. "We should always endeavor to find the best deal possible at the best quality. How do you know if you don't put it out to bid?"
McCollum defended the ads as an effective tool to help parents and grandparents protect children from predators.
"Before she points the finger at a no-bid contract, which is perfectly legal, she ought to look in-house," McCollum said. "She's got plenty of no-bid contracts there, before she should be criticizing a no-bid contract in our office. We have far less no bid contracts than the CFO's office does."
Sink, 60, and McCollum, 64, were both elected to their current jobs in 2006. Sink spent 28 years in the banking industry, rising to the presidency of Bank of America's Florida operations, a post she held for seven years.
Sink, who announced her candidacy in a low-key written statement, said she would put her "business experience and know-how to work restoring our economy … cut wasteful spending, crack down on financial fraud and reform state contracts.''
Soon after she announced her candidacy, the Republican Party of Florida unveiled a strategy of trying to hang Sink's banking resume around her neck, accusing her of playing "the leading role in tanking Florida's economy," and citing news reports that she collected $8.8 million in pay, stock options and deferred compensation in her three final years as a banker.
Sink is unlikely to face a serious challenger for the Democratic nomination. Her blend of business experience and moderate politics helped her handily defeat former Senate President Tom Lee for CFO in 2006, performing particularly well along the Interstate 4 corridor and in conservative North Florida. If Sink is elected she would be Florida's first female governor.
"A lot of people may not know her, but she's not your typical politician," said Democratic consultant Screven Watson. "She is an elected official that brings a known fundraising base and talent to the game. People like her. She doesn't talk and act like a typical politician and at this day in time, that's what people want."
A downtown Tallahassee fundraiser for Sink on Wednesday drew a large crowd of Democrats and some Republicans.
The hosts, though not all in attendance, included notable Republicans Jim Smith, a former secretary of state; Leon County Commissioner Brian Desloge; and Paul Mitchell, a top aide to former CFO Tom Gallagher.
Sink has made transparency a hallmark of her office, but she personally declined to allow reporters to cover the fundraiser, calling it a private event — a decision that surprised even her husband.
"Are you serious?" said Bill McBride, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2002 who routinely held fundraisers open to reporters while running.
McCollum served 20 years in Congress and focused on crime and intelligence issues, and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2000 and 2004. He has not opened a fundraising account but he controls a political fund, Building Integrity and Lasting Leadership.
Republican consultant Jamie Miller of Sarasota said Sink faces a tough challenge against the battle-tested McCollum.
"I don't think she's as tough as people expect her to be,'' Miller said. "Bill McCollum has spent about $30 million over the last 10 years building great name ID in the state. If it's Alex Sink against Bill McCollum, she's going to have a lot of work to do."
A Mason-Dixon poll last month showed Sink and McCollum in a dead heat with about one in three voters undecided.
The lone remaining Cabinet member, Republican Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, also is expected to enter the governor's race. Bronson is term limited and cannot seek re-election to his current post in 2010.
Bronson, Sink and McCollum share the spotlight every other week. As members of the Cabinet, the statewide policymaking board, they deal with important but arcane matters such as the state pension fund, bond issues and purchases of open space. Asked if there was a different dynamic at the Cabinet meeting, Crist smiled and said: "Perhaps. Change is coming, and maybe that's what we're seeing a little bit.''
Times/Herald staff writers Shannon Colavecchio, Beth Reinhard, Alex Leary and Marc Caputo and researcher Lynette Norris contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.