Legislator with no higher education experience tapped to lead South Florida State College

Gov. Ron DeSantis previously suspended Fred Hawkins as a county commissioner after he was charged with impersonating a law enforcement officer.
State Rep. Fred Hawkins, who has served in the House since 2020, was the lone finalist for the president's position at South Florida State College.
State Rep. Fred Hawkins, who has served in the House since 2020, was the lone finalist for the president's position at South Florida State College. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]
Published June 8, 2023|Updated June 8, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — State Rep. Fred Hawkins, R-St. Cloud, was selected Wednesday by South Florida State College trustees to succeed retiring school President Thomas Leitzel.

Hawkins, who has served in the House since 2020, was the lone finalist for the position. Details of Hawkins’ proposed contract will not be available until a June 21 meeting of the trustees, a South Florida State College spokesperson said.

Leitzel is set to retire on June 30, and Hawkins is expected to assume the presidency on July 3, pending approval of a contract.

Hawkins did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday from The News Service of Florida. But last month, after he was named the sole finalist, Hawkins suggested that his time as an elected official would soon end.

“Pages turn and new chapters begin. I am looking forward to becoming the next President of South Florida State College. My time as an elected official has been a highlight of my life, especially serving in the Florida House,” Hawkins said in a May 10 Twitter post.

Hawkins served from 2008 to 2020 on the Osceola County Commission. But Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended him in July 2020 after Hawkins was charged with impersonating a law enforcement officer. Hawkins went on to get elected to the House in November 2020.

During a special legislative session this year, Hawkins sponsored a high-profile bill that was a priority of DeSantis. The bill gave DeSantis authority to appoint the board of the former Reedy Creek Improvement District, which also was renamed the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. The change came amid a festering feud between DeSantis and The Walt Disney Co., which had long benefited from the Reedy Creek district.

A DeSantis spokesperson did not reply to a request for comment Wednesday about Hawkins’ selection as president of the college, which has campuses in Highlands, DeSoto and Hardee counties.

Critics of Hawkins’ selection have suggested the pick was purely political.

“Another GOP politician with no real qualifications for a job like this being appointed to lead a college. Higher education institutions shouldn’t serve as job placement plans for political cronies. The grift is real,” Thomas Kennedy, a Florida member of the Democratic National Committee, said in a Twitter post Wednesday.

Three candidates in recent weeks have filed paperwork to run for Hawkins’ House District 35 seat in Osceola and Orange counties. The candidates filed to run in the 2024 election. But with Hawkins vacating the seat, DeSantis likely will call a special election to determine a replacement.

Republican Demetries Andrew Grimes and Democrat Tom Keen opened campaign accounts in May, while Democrat Rishi Bagga launched a campaign account Monday.

Grimes voiced support for Hawkins on Wednesday.

“Congratulations to (Hawkins) on officially being named president of South Florida State College! The school is in great hands,” Grimes said in a tweet.

Meanwhile, Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, voiced support for Bagga in a potential special election.

“Let the Special Election begin, excited to see (Bagga) running again!” Eskamani said in a tweet.

Democratic data consultant Matthew Isbell raised the possibility that the seat could flip to Democrats, who are badly outnumbered in the Legislature.

“With Rep Fred Hawkins resigning, this Biden +5 seat opens up. Democrats flipping this seat would be another moral boost. It was red in 2022 with very lopsided turnout. Big Q (question) will be how strong Hispanic turnout ground game will be from Dems 80% of vote is from Orange (County),” Isbell said in a tweet.

By Ryan Dailey, News Service of Florida