CLEARWATER — Democrat Alex Sink often tells Pinellas voters that if they send her to Congress, she'll seek common ground with Republicans as she did when she was Florida's chief financial officer.
Sink's record as CFO shows she did work with Republicans on policy issues, but she had no alternative after being elected in 2006 to an all-Republican Cabinet that included Attorney General Bill McCollum and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, with then-Republican Charlie Crist as governor.
Many issues were not partisan, such as consumer fraud, property insurance and the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on small businesses. And even though Sink was surrounded by Republicans, her wonkish side was a neat fit for the nuts-and-bolts policy work of the Cabinet, a place not nearly as partisan as Congress. "They're not partisan issues, they're problem-solving issues. I went up there with that kind of attitude," Sink said of her four years in Tallahassee. "I didn't have to be super-partisan."
McCollum, who returned to practicing law after losing a 2010 bid for governor, agreed. But he said Sink is in for a rude awakening if she goes to Capitol Hill.
"Her job wasn't a partisan role and mine wasn't either," McCollum said. "The difference is that the issues in Washington are very different. It's going to be very different than she envisions because of the polarization that's taken place in Congress."
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Three months into her job as CFO, Sink cast one of her most significant votes when she sided with Crist and Bronson to ease the return to citizenship for former prison inmates who had been stripped of their civil rights after felony convictions.
The new policy allowed tens of thousands of people to regain rights, including voting, until 2011 when Gov. Rick Scott and an all-Republican Cabinet changed the rules to require ex-offenders to wait at least five years before they can seek restoration.
As CFO and steward of the state's checkbook, Sink cast herself as a fiscal watchdog. She once persuaded her three GOP colleagues to side with her in rejecting a deal she said would "stink" for taxpayers.
Sink believed the state had been too lax in approving submerged land leases that allow private developers to build marinas in environmentally sensitive areas. She lobbied fellow Cabinet members to stop a marina and condominium project in Collier County where a developer would have paid just $29,500 for a lease fee on 49 dock slips worth millions of dollars.
Crist, sensing the mood of the Cabinet, stopped the hearing before a vote was taken, killing the project and shocking environmentalists who were accustomed to seeing marinas rubber-stamped.
"That's the thing Alex Sink used her position on the Cabinet for," said lobbyist Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida. "She said, 'What are we doing? We're giving this away.' "
It happened again on a controversial St. Petersburg marina project but with a different outcome. Sink called a submerged land lease for 30 slips at Coquina Key a "rip-off" that would reap millions in profits for a developer with little reward for the state, but her protests were ignored.
Often outnumbered, Sink sought policy changes that Republicans rejected.
She wanted to give subpoena power to the state insurance consumer advocate. That failed.
She wanted to expand oversight of the state pension fund to include experts beyond its three elected trustees (Sink, Crist and McCollum). That failed, too.
Recalling that issue in a recent interview at her Clearwater campaign office, Sink said she pressed to require an outside auditor and quarterly discussions of the fund's performance.
"An outside auditor," Sink said. "Wonder of wonders."
Agriculture Commissioner Bronson and Sink were polar opposites on many issues, such as climate change. But Bronson recalled working with Sink to arrange a 2007 forum on the issue with scientists, state university researchers, environmentalists and others. "I don't know how much we were able to get done, but we worked with her office," Bronson said.
One of Sink's biggest crises involved the meltdown of a local government pool, a sort of money-market fund whose investors are cities, counties and school districts. The fund, set up as a low-risk nest egg for local governments' money, was besieged by withdrawals in 2007 after a series of risky investments led to a raid on the fund, which hastened the resignation of Coleman Stipanovich, chief of the state pension fund.
Desperate to regain credibility with investors, Sink suggested an interim director of the pension fund: former Comptroller Bob Milligan, a Republican who had crossed party lines to endorse Sink for CFO in 2006. Milligan was respected by both political parties.
In the panic-stricken weeks following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, Sink delivered a tongue-lashing to a BP executive at a Cabinet meeting, chastised President Barack Obama for not solving problems with claims and traveled to the Panhandle to meet with small-business owners.
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In the campaign for Congressional District 13, Sink cites as one of her proudest accomplishments as CFO her efforts to enact a 2008 law strengthening penalties against fraud in the sales of annuities and life insurance products to elderly Floridians.
"She was able to come up with a product that represented progress, but not punitive toward private capital," said Mark Delegal of Holland & Knight, a lobbyist for life and annuity companies. "She was flexible. She was not dogmatic."
Delegal, who also lobbies for property insurance companies and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said he wished that Sink had been more outspoken when Crist pushed for property insurance changes that insurers felt were fiscally irresponsible.
Premiums were rising dramatically, insurers were dumping policies, and a major insurance crisis led to rate cuts and an expansion of the state-run insurer, Citizens Property Insurance Corp. Crist repeatedly bashed insurers for "greed" and used the crisis to burnish his credentials as a populist.
"Alex, at her core, is a fiscal conservative," Delegal said. "I wish she would have been more vocal."
Crist, a moderate Republican, tried to govern from the center, so Sink was his closest political ally in the Cabinet. But their relationship became more tense as Sink took aim at the governorship in 2010; Crist would run as an independent U.S. Senate candidate.
Both lost, but Sink said the experience taught her a basic lesson about politics. "It is about relationships," she said. "You can find people here and there who are willing to sit down and say, 'We've got a problem.' "
Times staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.