TALLAHASSEE — Running out of time and job applicants, Gov. Rick Scott and Cabinet members broke a logjam Friday and placed untested state regulator David Altmaier on the hot seat as Florida's new insurance commissioner.
A surprise pick, Altmaier, 34, was the second youngest of seven finalists for the job and the last one to be interviewed. A rapidly rising star in the ranks of the Office of Insurance Regulation, he spent the past year as a deputy commissioner under Kevin McCarty, who after 13 years is leaving one of the most politically challenging jobs in state government.
"This man is an incredible talent," Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said of Altmaier. "He's going to perform very well."
Altmaier, who has a math degree from Western Kentucky University, began his career as a ninth-grade algebra teacher and high school track and field coach. He later worked for two years as a Tallahassee insurance agent before joining OIR in 2008.
Altmaier was Atwater's third choice for the job.
At a special meeting called by Scott, Atwater offered the position to Altmaier after his first two nominees, Republican state Rep. Bill Hager of Delray Beach and McCarty's chief of staff, Belinda Miller, drew no support from Scott.
Atwater also made Altmaier's hiring subject to a condition that McCarty remain for two months to advise his successor during a transition overlap period.
"He could have someone very seasoned that he could turn to," Atwater said.
Florida's always-treacherous hurricane season starts June 1, and one of the insurance commissioner's biggest responsibilities is to maintain a stable property insurance market.
Altmaier's experience is mostly in that area.
As commissioner, Altmaier also will regulate auto, flood, life and health insurance while managing the emerging crisis over insurance for long-term health and market fluctuations wrought by the federal health care law known as Obamacare.
Working with the Legislature, Altmaier also must craft a solution to Thursday's Florida Supreme Court ruling that struck down caps on attorney's fees in workers' compensation cases as unconstitutional.
The commissioner acts as both a regulator and consumer watchdog, and takes the heat if insurance rates go up.
During a 20-minute job interview, Altmaier said he plans no sweeping changes in the management team or mission.
"My overall philosophy on insurance regulation is not going to differ that much from the status quo," Altmaier said. "Everybody at the office is committed to the protection of consumers in a way that facilitates a robust insurance marketplace."
Support from Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam made the decision unanimous at a meeting at which only Atwater was in the room, looking the candidates in the eye.
The other three participated by phone, with cell phone static at times crackling in the background.
Putnam made it clear that even with McCarty still around, Altmaier is in charge.
"We believe in him. He is our choice, and he is the leader, and we will hold him responsible going forward from this moment," Putnam said. "This is not an apprenticeship."
Altmaier will be paid $165,000 a year, a significant boost over his current salary of $115,000.
After Atwater suggested Altmaier be paid $160,000, Scott mistakenly repeated it as $165,000.
Altmaier, seated in the front row, smiled and gave Atwater a thumbs-up signal.
"I recognize the magnitude of the position," Altmaier said.
Altmaier begins work immediately, but still must pass a series of background checks.
Scott's first and only nominee for the post was Jeffrey Bragg, 67, of Palm Harbor, who created the federal government's first terrorism risk insurance program after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Scott, who ran Friday's 90-minute meeting by phone from Naples, asked fewer questions than Cabinet members.
"I think we ended up with a good result," Scott told Cabinet members after they voted over the phone. "Have a great weekend. Bye bye."
Scott declined to answer questions by phone after the vote. His office said he had to get to a public event in Fort Myers.
McCarty, who announced his resignation on Jan. 5, earns about $135,000 a year and will draw his full salary during the 60-day transition.
Scott and the Cabinet raised the salary to a maximum of $200,000 to draw a bigger pool of applicants, but many of the 71 people who applied lacked the private sector or government experience required by law to be commissioner.
Scott and Atwater refused to back each other's top choice for the job and exchanged conflicting legal opinions over whether McCarty could delay his resignation.
A state law that made the insurance commissioner an appointed position in 2002, sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, requires that the governor and CFO agree on an appointment.
Until Friday, McCarty is the only person to have held the job, so that unique hiring system was not tested until now, and despite the deadlock, Atwater said it's a good system.
"I thought the process was working out just as it was designed," Atwater said. "You'd have to find consensus."
Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.