Buzz: Florida chief financial officer may join list of open offices

CFO Jeff Atwater won’t have to resign to run for U.S. Senate. If he wins, an interim would be appointed.
CFO Jeff Atwater won’t have to resign to run for U.S. Senate. If he wins, an interim would be appointed.
Published April 5, 2015

Chief financial officer Jeff Atwater has been working the phones in recent days, telling Republican activists and donors that he intends to run for the 2016 Republican U.S. Senate nomination and wants their support.

With incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio expected to announce his candidacy for president April 13, Atwater is gearing up for what could be a tough primary for a rare open Senate seat.

Other Republican prospects include Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Ponte Vedra Beach. Don't underestimate Atwater, an amiable former banker from Palm Beach County, who we suspect has attended more rubber chicken dinners with civic groups and GOP clubs across the state than any other elected official in Florida.

We hear Atwater's announcement will come about a week after Rubio's. Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy of Jupiter has already launched his bid.

Atwater won't have to resign as CFO to run for U.S. Senate because his term does not expire until 2018.

If Atwater wins a U.S. Senate seat, Gov. Rick Scott would appoint his interim successor. And you can bet Scott's political team already is fielding a lot of calls from ambitious Republicans interested not only in the CFO post but also eventually becoming governor.

Because unless your last name is Bush or you have a hundred million dollars to spend, the most logical path to the Governor's Mansion is through the Florida Cabinet. You have to be a lawyer to be attorney general and it's generally accepted that the agriculture commissioner ought to have some idea of the difference between a Guernsey and a Hereford. That makes CFO the ideal jumping spot for nonlawyers lacking farming experience, although Florida history is loaded with unsuccessful gubernatorial candidates from the Cabinet.

Back in 2014, when Atwater unsuccessfully sought the job of president of Florida Atlantic University, a bunch of names surfaced as his possible successor: former state Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland; state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon; former House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel; Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville; and Lakewood Ranch developer Pat Neal of Sarasota.

Most of the Buzz we heard then and now centers on Neal, a well-respected businessman, legislator (1974-86) and former chairman of Florida's Christian Coalition, who served on Scott's transition team and raised money for him.

"I'd be interested in doing something as CFO, not necessarily using it as a stepping stone for something," Neal, a graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Buzz.

Talk of the Tower

Rubio will announce his candidacy for president at Miami's Freedom Tower, which for years served as a processing center for Cuban refugees. The 1925 landmark can serve to symbolize the promise and greatness of America — but also Rubio's history of inconsistency when it comes to fiscal conservatism.

Rewind the clock to 2003.

The tea party was still a Revolutionary War phenomenon, Jeb Bush had just won a second term as governor, and Rubio was a talented, young legislative leader, rather than a U.S. senator and credible contender for leader of the free world, He was the 31-year-old Florida House majority leader in a year when legislators faced particularly tough budget decisions. The Republican-controlled Legislature ultimately had to hold a special session to hammer out a budget that raised college tuition 8.5 percent, led to teacher layoffs, and left developmentally disabled Floridians on waiting lists for services.

But even as lawmakers were debating how much to fund Florida's "medically needy" program, Rubio pushed for taxpayers to spend $7 million so Miami Dade Community College could buy Freedom Tower. He called it the "Cuban Ellis Island" and said it has "tremendous meaning in our community."

Then-Gov. Bush, a fellow Miami-Dade resident, threatened to veto the Freedom Tower earmark, calling it "a turkey," Tallahassee-speak for a pork-barrel project.

"It is certainly not a turkey," Rubio told the Orlando Sentinel at the time. "Just because a project maybe didn't go through the proper channels doesn't mean that it is unworthy of state funding."

The public funding never did go through, but in 2005 a developer, the Terra Group, donated it to what is now called Miami Dade College.

Contact Adam C. Smith at Follow @adamsmithtimes.