Democrats scouting for CFO hopeful
By CATHERINE DOLINSKI | The Tampa Tribune
Published: November 16, 2009
TALLAHASSEE – Next year could be a watershed for Florida Democrats, who have an opportunity to regain parity or even take the lead on the state Cabinet.
So far, they have credible candidates running for every Cabinet post — except one: chief financial officer.
Ironically, it’s the only statewide office the party currently holds.
“I’m very disappointed nobody’s stepped up yet,” said Alex Sink, Florida’s CFO who is running for governor.
“It’s sad,” said Senate Minority Leader Al Lawson, who was rumored in June to be considering a CFO run but who, instead, has stuck to his primary challenge against U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd.
“You’ve got 18 million people in the state of Florida, and the party leadership has not been able to find a candidate,” said Lawson, of Tallahassee. “I don’t know what they’re doing.”
Patience, party leaders say. Negotiations are in the works. “We’re talking to a number of people,” said Scott Arceneaux, Democratic Party executive director.
Derek Newton, a Miami-based Democratic political consultant, said he hopes so.
“I view it as a quickly deteriorating opportunity,” said Newton, who has approached about a half-dozen potential candidates so far. “I’m frustrated.”
Florida voters approved the CFO position by referendum in 1998 to replace the state offices of treasurer and comptroller.
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, state Sen. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton, Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and Miami businesswoman Annette Taddeo are among the prominent Democrats that party leaders or strategists tried in vain to lure into running.
Bud Chiles, son of the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, has likewise abstained. Other “no’s” include Bart Gunter, son of former insurance commissioner and treasurer Bill Gunter, and insurance firm executive Charles Lydecker, a former vice chairman of the state Commission of Ethics, party insiders say.
“Both of those gentlemen are doing well for themselves, and they have families,” said Democratic consultant Screven Watson. A former executive director of the party, he said it can be hard to persuade leaders in the private sector to give up lucrative salaries to run for a state office.
Arceneaux said the party is seriously discussing the position with several people, some of whom are working on sensitive business deals.
“Hopefully, we’ll have a candidate before the (2010 legislative) session” that starts in early March, he said.
Some ambitious Democrats may be waiting to see whether Sink chooses them as a running mate before deciding on a run for CFO.
But the lack of a contender may also be the product of intimidation caused by the fundraising success of the leading GOP candidate, Senate President Jeff Atwater of North Palm Beach.
Like Sink, Atwater is a former bank president. As head of the Senate, he wields great influence over moneyed special interests. Many have stepped up this year to shower him in campaign donations.
He raised more than $540,000 during the fundraising quarter that ended Sept. 30, boosting his total contributions received above $1 million. Of that, he had spent about $28,000.
“He hasn’t even started raising money,” said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida.
Atwater also benefits from representing a wealthy South Florida district, said Rick Asnani, a political consultant based in West Palm Beach who represents Republicans.
Asnani, who worked on Atwater’s 2002 state Senate campaign but is no longer representing him, described Atwater as an intense campaigner who ranks among the state’s top fundraisers.
“He’s got an incredible loyalty base of people who will raise money for him through their contacts,” Asnani said.
That’s no reason not to challenge him, said Newton, who characterized Atwater as “exceptionally beatable.” Top House and Senate officers rarely win statewide races, Newton said.
Take Alex Sink’s 2006 victory, he said. Sink, who had never run for office, beat former Senate President Tom Lee for CFO.
“People inside the political process know the president and speaker have a lot of power — they do,” Newton said. “But voters don’t know and don’t care.”
Eventually, even those inside the process may not care so much. State law will prevent Atwater from raising money during the spring legislative session — his last as Senate president, after which his influence over contributors will wane dramatically.
“That’s why you see Atwater doing the smart thing, banking as many dollars as he can while he’s still relevant,” Newton said. “It will be a monumental missed opportunity (for Democrats) not to get into the race before the session.”
State posts such as CFO often function as political steppingstones, attracting ambitious politicians with varying degrees of relevant expertise.
But some Democrats say Sink’s financial background has set a high bar for her replacement — and the GOP already has a former bank president running for the office.
“There’s a belief that the next candidate needs to be just like her,” said state Sen. Dave Aronberg, a Democratic candidate for attorney general. “We’ve got to realize that CFO is such a broad position that you can have a wide variety of backgrounds. You don’t have to be a banker.”
Aronberg, a former deputy attorney general, said he is not interested in switching races, even though he is trailing primary opponent Dan Gelber in fundraising.
Part of the Democratic Party’s problem with the CFO race is the party itself, said Darryl Paulson, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus.
Florida Democrats’ victory in the 2008 presidential race was historic, but their failure to find a candidate for the Cabinet office they hold now shows that “they’re not all the way back,” said Paulson, a Republican. “They have one very strong candidate, and they’re putting all their eggs into one big basket, hoping to pull off a victory in the governor’s race and using that as a launching pad for the party.”
Any Democrat who gets into the CFO race at this point, he said, risks being a sacrificial lamb unless the candidate is wealthy enough to bankroll the campaign.
Arceneaux disagreed, saying that ample time remains in the next few months for the party to mount a competitive campaign.
“No doubt, the Democrats had some tough years in Florida in the early part of the decade,” the party director said. “But we’re going to have a strong statewide ticket.”