Jeff Atwater: Less Moderate than you may think

Florida CFO Jeff Atwater has cultivated an image as a business-savvy moderate Republican.While Atwater is far from the most ideologically driven Republican, he is no moderate. Many have speculated that if Rock Scott’s poll numbers continue to lag (though much of this talk stopped last week when the Q-poll showed Scott closing the gap on Charlie Crist, the presumptive Dem nominee in the poll to just 7 points) Atwater may be called upon late in the game to run for Governor by establishment Republicans. This scenario I continue to think is highly unlikely, but let’s focus on Atwater’s job and possible vulnerability as CFO.

As a State Representative and State Senator Atwater had a unique ability to connect with Democratic leaders in his Palm Beach County home and win key support from Democrats in local elections. Atwater quickly became a superstar after defeating Carl Domino in the 2000 State House District 83 GOP Primary despite being heavily outspent. He then defeated Democrat Pam Dunston easily in the fall, despite the fact that Al Gore carried the district by six percentage points over George W. Bush. In a study I did for the Palm Beach County Democratic Party in 2001, we determined that upwards of 15% of the electorate in House District 83 had voted for Gore, as well as Bill Nelson for US Senate, but then switched to Atwater in the State House race.

Two years later, Atwater was the beneficiary of a feud between Senator Debby Sanderson and former Senate President Jim Scott. Scott, serving as legal counsel for the Senate on reapportionment,  helped engineer the drawing of Sanderson’s district (which Scott had formerly represented for 24 years) into areas that would make her re-election less likely. Sanderson, after initially running against Atwater, dropped out and Atwater was elected by a wide margin over statewide Democratic superstar Bob Butterworth, the sitting Attorney General, in November. Butterworth’s campaign never really took off, but Atwater had defeated the most popular statewide Democratic official and was instantly a player in Republican party circles.

Atwater had contributed  to the overall moderation of the Senate in his first term when he joined a majority of Senators in working to water down the onerous provisions of the Medical Malpractice bills favored by Governor Bush, Speaker Johnny Byrd and Marco Rubio among others. He also compiled a decent (for a Republican) record on legal and insurance issues from 2004 to 2008. In 2008, Atwater was to face a potentially strong Democratic challenger in former Senator and 2006 Attorney General nominee Skip Campbell. But that race, much like Butterworth’s  attempt, was ill-conceived and Campbell eventually dropped out.   Free from the prospect of running for re-election again in a moderate south Florida district in 2009, Atwater turned partisan and ideological.

Despite the support Atwater received from Democrats in his legislative races, he compiled a record as Senate President which was to that point the most conservative since the GOP gained a majority in the body. Unlike his predecessors as Senate President, Ken Pruitt, Tom Lee, Jim King and John McKay, Atwater made little attempt at moderation once Senate President. In fact,  two of his final acts as  President  were especially telling.  One was to steer through the Senate a dangerous union-busting teacher tenure bill which was promptly vetoed by Governor Crist. The other was the ideologically charged vaginal ultrasound legislation that would effectively have severely restricted a woman’s right to choose in Florida. This bill, considered a model by right wing activists and talking heads across the country was also vetoed by Governor Crist. A year later, a similar bill was signed by Governor Scott.

Until he announced he would not run many Florida Republicans were looking to Atwater to be their savior in the Gubernatorial Race since Rick Scott is both unpopular and unreliably conservative. The reason Atwater was courted was not only because of his moderate image and ties to Democrats; it was because he has become a conventional conservative.

Atwater’s record as a banker with close ties to the financial sector effectively made him Florida’s version of Mitt Romney while he served in the Legislature. He has continued to govern in that manner as CFO. When several Democratic leaders and activists gave quiet support both financially and politically to Atwater in 2010 many leading Democrats turned the other way. Lorrane Ausley, the Democratic nominee, was crushed in the fall election partly due to the disloyalty of many Democrats in Southeast Florida. Some of these Democrats had ties to Atwater through the network of patronage and cronyism that has permeated the political culture in the region. In retrospect, Atwater’s moderation in the 2003 to 2008 period was based almost entirely on his need to be re-elected in a moderate district.

Below are several examples of Atwater’s excesses:

  •    Atwater supported a state budget which built a $120 million dollar private prison that was not requested by the department of corrections and cost more than the existing prisons it replaces.  Atwater’s chief of staff previously worked for the prison company.
  •   Atwater actively supported massive hikes in college tuition for Florida’s students trying to balance the budget on the backs of college students rather than millionaires.
  •   Atwater was a highly-paid executive vice president of a local Florida bank that had to be bailed out by taxpayers to the tune of $500 million – just two months after Atwater left his post there.
  •   Atwater supported the extreme anti-abortion ultrasound bill in Florida that would have required a woman to pay out of pocket for an ultrasound before receiving an abortion.  Governor Crist vetoed this bill.
  •   Atwater helped marshal through the Senate a dangerous  union busting bill regarding teacher tenure. Governor Crist vetoed this bill.

Atwater is up for re-election as CFO next year. But hope of the Democrats competing with the likes of Will Rankin may very well depend on Atwater’s negatives being raised.

One comment

  1. Sounds like the typical pay to play republican.


%d bloggers like this: