TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Jeff Atwater will remain the state’s chief financial officer after a committee at Florida Atlantic University left his name off a list of three finalists for the school’s presidency.
Atwater was presumed to be the front-runner when he announced late last week that he would pursue the FAU job. Republicans had already begun carefully putting their names forward as possible replacements — Gov. Rick Scott would have appointed someone to finish Atwater’s term — and Democrats were believed to be trying to recruit a higher-profile candidate for the CFO race in November.
One longtime political hand, former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, did make the cut for the FAU job. LeMieux was a key adviser to former Gov. Charlie Crist before the two men had a falling out after Crist bolted the GOP. Christopher Earley, dean of the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University, and John Kelly, vice president for economic development at Clemson University, are the other two finalists.
In a message on his Facebook page, Atwater said he was “honored to have the university encourage my participation” in the search.
“As I said to my staff about accepting an invitation to apply, my passion for serving as Florida’s CFO and my commitment to working with my great colleagues for years to come remains undiminished,” Atwater wrote.
His candidacy might have been undermined after media reports about the ties between Atwater and Wendy Link, a member of the search committee. Link’s law firm received contracts from Citizens Property Insurance Corp., which is run by a board with Atwater appointees among its membership, and Link used Atwater as a reference when she applied for a seat on the Florida Board of Governors.
Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, said those ties likely helped lead to the surprise decision for Atwater to be excluded.
“When the connection between the CFO and a member of the selection committee became known, for some on the committee it would have been a difficult vote, because it would, in the minds of some, taint the process,” she said.
She also predicted the short-lived bid for the university presidency would have a limited impact on Atwater’s campaign for re-election in November.
“To me, a university presidency is not the same thing as casting your eye on another elective office,” she said.
Atwater, who served as state Senate president before getting elected to the Cabinet post, has raised at least $1.17 million for his re-election campaign, including $355,000 in December, according to newly filed finance reports.
When reached Friday night, LeMieux did not want to answer questions about Atwater, but acknowledged he faced “heavy competition” and that he was “humbled” to have made the final list of three candidates.
“I’d rather focus on the fact that I’m really honored to have been selected to go in front of the board of trustees,” he said. “There were a lot of very fine candidates among the pool. … I’m very humbled and honored to make it to the next round of interviews.”
The FAU board of trustees is set to interview the three finalists on Jan. 17.
“The News Service of Florida’s BRANDON LARRABEE and DARA KAM contributed to this report.”