TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott's expected pick of Jimmy Patronis as the state's next chief financial officer would be a solid addition to the Republican Party ticket but may not do much to smooth some rough waters developing in the Panhandle over schools, area Republicans said this week.
Patronis, a Panama City restaurateur and former state legislator who was named by Scott to the Public Service Commission, is the leading candidate to replace outgoing CFO Jeff Atwater, sources close to the governor told the Times/Herald last week.
Two others have been openly interested because they want to run as the incumbent on next year's ballot: Rep. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, and former state senator and Manatee County developer Pat Neal. Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry talked to the governor about the job but his family was not prepared to trade life in Jacksonville for Tallahassee.
Neal, who brings with him the ability to self-fund if needed in the statewide campaign next year, has lobbied hard for the job. Gruters and another one mentioned for the job, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, have not been approached by Scott, who is expected to make the appointment next week. Patronis and Neal did not return requests for comment.
"I expressed an interest early on,'' said Gruters, who like Patronis was an early and loyal supporter of Scott and remained by his side through a series of tough votes against House Speaker Richard Corcoran last session. But Gruters is pragmatic when he says, "I have a fighting chance, but it's slim."
Scott's political advisers have sent signals that they want the candidate to add value to a ticket in the face of what could be a tough political year. Neal, a millionaire developer of more than 12,000 Gulf Coast homes, is capable of spending tens of millions of his own money to aid the Republican ticket in 2018. He served in the Florida House from 1974 through 1978 and in the Florida Senate from 1978 through 1986 and has led the Florida Christian Coalition.
Patronis is extremely popular among Republican loyalists and "would be a brilliant choice" and "beyond reproach," said Sen. George Gainer, the Panama City Republican who has known the 45-year-old Patronis for decades.
"He'll tell you the truth and be consistent,'' said Gainer, who himself is a multimillionaire regional car dealer.
"This position is a matter of trust — the trust of the state of Florida,'' he said. "I'd trust him with everything I've got."
Henry Kelley, a former tea party activist who ran the governor's Okaloosa County campaign in 2010, also believes Patronis would be a good appointment to serve the remaining 18 months of Atwater's term and run as the incumbent.
"Jimmy certainly has a Rolodex, but the idea that Patronis will help the governor in the Panhandle doesn't hold water,'' he said.
Republican polls show the governor, who is expected to run for the U.S. Senate, with 80 percent approval ratings among the GOP faithful in the Panhandle, but Kelley, who now works as a director of community affairs for the Okaloosa county school system, said the displeasure with Scott's decision to sign HB 7069 has seeded distrust among Republican school advocates in the region and it could haunt him.
"He had a chance to stand up for public schools and he didn't,'' Kelley said. "I think the world of Jimmy. If he is going to reward a good soldier, good for him. But a guy from Bay County can't swing a stick in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Walton and Okaloosa County. And his name recognition is low — to extremely low."
"They voted to harm what is arguably the region's most valuable asset,'' he said, then ticking off a list of inequities the bill creates by giving charter schools an advantage over traditional public schools — from school zoning to recess, to teacher contracts and certification, to salaries and Title I funds. "If they're all public schools, why don't they get treated the same?"
Kelley said Scott's visits to the region have consisted primarily of "meeting with the donors but he doesn't come for more populist events."
By contrast, Kelley said, when Okaloosa County School officials travelled to Washington, D.C., this year to discuss issues, "Bill Nelson was the only member of the Florida congressional delegation who would meet with us — and he was in tune with the issues."
Then, in a stunning about-face for the early Scott supporter, Kelley predicted: "We will vote for Nelson over Scott,'' he said. "This is crony capitalism. We're crying out — with brass knuckles. Nelson has a good chance."
Gainer said he regrets voting for HB 7069.
"Some of us really felt like this was not going to get past the governor,'' he said. "I thought he would veto it and we would get another crack at it. We will never let that happen again."
Gainer believes that Scott and legislators must end the inequities in the new law: "increase the accountability on charter schools … make sure that charter schools aren't used to make public schools fall behind … don't make public schools take everybody while charters schools don't."
"It's not just a problem for us in northwest Florida,'' he warned. "It's a problem for the whole state."
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] Follow @MaryEllenKlas.