TALLAHASSEE — Despite Florida's sour economy, the man expected to be the state's next Senate president has raised an unprecedented $2.2-million for a two-year job that pays just $42,072 annually.
Republican Sen. Jeff Atwater of Palm Beach Gardens, whose campaign message is that he's an agent of change, has also received an additional $230,000 from the Republican Party of Florida to pay campaign workers, polling and other expenses.
Atwater's fundraising success doesn't end there. A separate political committee he controls, called Preserve the American Dream, has raised $820,000 from real estate, gambling, medical and other major lobbying interests in Tallahassee. He can use the money to defray more expenses and help political allies win their races.
"We have the best Legislature money can buy," said Ben Wilcox of Common Cause Florida, which has tried without success to limit influence of money in the capital. "There's no political will for campaign finance reform."
Observers could not recall a legislative candidate raising the amount Atwater has amassed in a state with a $500 limit on individual donations. A 50-year-old bank executive, he is seen as a likely future statewide candidate — he toyed with a run for chief financial officer in 2006 but backed away.
"A lot of people from a lot of places in Florida recognize Jeff is going to be an important and decisive leader in the Senate," said Rick Wilson, an Atwater adviser. "By every meaningful measure, Jeff's support in Florida has been overwhelming."
By comparison, outgoing Senate President Ken Pruitt raised $646,000 for his 2006 re-election. His predecessor, Tom Lee of Brandon, created a political committee that by 2006 had $1.2-million, an amount that at that time was considered excessive.
In 2006, Charles Bronson needed $1.7-million to win re-election to the statewide post of agriculture commissioner.
Atwater, whose Democratic challenger, Linda Bird, has raised just $33,000, has spent nearly $900,000 from his primary campaign account. Whatever he does not spend can be donated to the Republican Party, to charity or returned to contributors on a pro-rated basis.
Atwater's prodigious pot of money comes at a time when lawmakers are prohibited by law from accepting food or drink from lobbyists. The law exempts campaign contributions. He has raised $249,000 from doctors, $161,000 from lawyers, $114,000 from real estate interests and $80,000 from donors described by his campaign as consultants or government relations — usually euphemisms for lobbyists.
The senator raised much of his money this year when he expected to be tested by wealthy trial lawyer and former state Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, who dropped out of the race.
A Barack Obama-like summer campaign mailing in Atwater's district in Palm Beach and Broward counties urged voters to "join the fight for change" and says the only way democracy works is when citizens are empowered to demand change.
Despite Florida's weak economy, several other lawmakers all have raised sizable amounts of cash for re-election campaigns.
Rep. Adam Hasner of Delray Beach, the House majority leader, has raised $657,000 for a job that pays $30,000 a year.
The others, all incumbents, include Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, who has raised $527,000; Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, $504,000; Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, $470,000; Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, $383,000; and Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, $356,000.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.