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Republicans Have Loaded Bench of CFO Possibilities

January 5, 2014 - 6:00pm

With Jeff Atwater announcing he will focus on becoming the next president of Florida Atlantic University instead of running again for a second term as the states CFO, eyes are turning toward Republicans who could replace him.

Buzz is focusing around four possible Republicans: Will Weatherford, Seth McKeel, Tom Lee and David Simmons.

Most of the buzz has centered around Will Weatherford, the speaker of the Florida House and the youngest legislative leader in the nation, who is a rising star for Republicans, and conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) have honored him this year. In many quarters, including with some national conservative groups, he is seen as the next Marco Rubio.

Weatherford has benefited from being the son-in-law of Allan Bense. Besides serving as House speaker, Bense led the Florida Chamber of Commerce and would help reassure the business community that Weatherford will be in their corner. There are also other family ties. Even while the Weatherfords might not be the Mannings, Will played football at Jacksonville University, his brother Joe played at Central Florida, his father and grandfather played at Southern Methodist. Wills brother Drew Weatherford was the starting quarterback for Florida State in his sophomore and junior years before being benched behind current Minnesota Vikings QB Christian Ponder. From his rise in politics after Ken Littlefield left the Florida House to his days playing college football, Weatherford always had the support of his family. His family ties will certainly help Weatherford if hes on the statewide ballot in 2014.

Weatherford will be term-limited in the House at the end of 2014 and he doesnt have many options in the short run for seeking another office. Gus Bilirakis is only 50 and that congressional seats been held by the Bilirakis family for 30 years. A bid for statewide office in 2018 is also possible but that would mean Weatherford would have to spend time off the political stage.

Granted, Weatherford would, at first glance, help Republicans in 2014 if he is the CFO candidate. Weatherford would help reel in conservatives who might be unhappy with Rick Scott and he would offer some energy to the ticket. Weatherford could help Republicans in his home base in the Tampa Bay area. Despite his youth, Weatherford has the political qualifications to be CFO, even if his record in the private sector is slim. If he becomes CFO, Weatherford would be well-positioned to push his agenda in the Legislature.

But another possible CFO is also in the Florida House. At only 38, Seth McKeel has already risen quickly up the Florida political ladder and has thrown his name out as a possible CFO candidate in 2018. With Atwater bowing out, McKeels chance could come earlier. though he is not as well-known throughout the state as some of the other contenders.

McKeel ranks as one of the heavyweights in the Florida House. He chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee and he leads the Joint Legislative Budget Commission. The Polk County legislator will have a major say in crafting the budget in the coming session.

Its easy to see McKeel in the CFO post. While he doesnt have the business leadership credentials of Atwater or Alex Sink, he clearly knows the budget process and how Tallahassee works. McKeel does have some experience in real estate which does impact a good part of the Florida economy. He also has deep ties to the business community in Lakeland.

Like Weatherford, McKeel faces term limits in 2014 and a CFO bid makes sense, especially as he has few other political options. Fellow Republican Kelli Stargel blocks his rise to the Florida Senate and a congressional bid seems unlikely.

McKeel has made a living out of defying the political odds. He was elected to the Lakeland City Commission back in 2000 when he was only 24. In 2006, McKeel was elected to the Florida House and, despite his youth, he has ascended through the Republican ranks serving as deputy GOP leader before taking over Appropriations.

While he currently represents only Polk County, McKeel used to represent part of Hillsborough County before redistricting early last year. With ties to the Tampa Bay area as well as Polk County, McKeel has a solid base which should come in handy if he ends up facing voters at the state level. McKeel has also established himself as a proven fundraiser.

With Scott headed to Tampa for a major media event on Wednesday night, speculation has been renewed that Tom Lee could end up as state CFO or lieutenant governor.

Nobody can deny Lees credentials for the CFO job and hes had interest in it before. A former state Senate president, Lee ran against Alex Sink in 2006 but ended up losing to the Democrat. Bouncing back to the Senate in 2012 after a nasty primary against Rachel Burgin, Lee has set his eyes on becoming Senate president again, though rival Wilton Simpson has impressed. Its easy to forget, since hes been prominent in Tallahassee since the mid-1990s, but Lee is only 51.

Having been on the political stage for so long, Lee should avoid gaffes and missteps. Hailing from Hillsborough County, Lee should help Republicans in the voter-rich Tampa Bay area. Getting Lee out of the Senate could help avoid a future leadership battle and help ensure a bit more tranquility in the GOP caucus.

David Simmons is also a possibility for the CFO post though he is not as well-known across the state as Weatherford or Lee. A prominent attorney with deep ties to Central Florida, Simmons has been a staunch Republican who served eight years in the House and is now starting his fourth year in the Senate. Despite being a freshman, Simmons served as GOP whip during his first term in the Senate.

Simmons certainly has the knowledge for the post and, as the financial managing partner of de Beaubien, Knight, Simmons, Mantzaris & Neal, he does have some solid management experience. With ties to the business community, Simmons would pass muster with that important part of the Republican coalition.

Its tough to see all of the Republicans running against each other -- and near impossible to see Weatherford and McKeel duking it out in the primary. Regardless of what happens in terms of Atwaters departure and its timetable, the GOP has some solid CFO possibilities waiting in the wings.

Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis exclusively for Sunshine State News.

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