PANAMA CITY — Florida's next chief financial officer will be one of Gov. Rick Scott's original political allies.
Scott on Monday turned to former state Rep. Jimmy Patronis, 45, to complete the term of Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who will leave the elected Cabinet office Friday for a job at Florida Atlantic University. Scott said he wanted someone who could “step in and do a really good job.”
“He's got a breadth of knowledge about a lot of things,” Scott said during an appearance at Patronis' family-owned Capt. Anderson's Restaurant in Panama City. A Florida State University graduate, Patronis will be sworn in Friday to the $128,972-a-year job, joining Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam on the Cabinet.
The move was Scott's third major appointment of Patronis, who served in the state House for eight years. Scott appointed Patronis in 2014 to the Florida Public Service Commission.
Patronis submitted his resignation Sunday from the $131,036-a-year position on the utility regulatory panel. In March, Patronis was among a number of political loyalists the governor appointed to the state Constitution Revision Commission.
Patronis, a Republican from Panama City, was an early political supporter of Scott in 2010, when the governor was a largely unknown multi-millionaire from Naples who was challenging Republican establishment favorite Bill McCollum in a GOP primary.
Atwater, who was elected CFO in 2010 and re-elected in 2014, quickly offered support for Scott's selection of Patronis.
“He's a dedicated public servant with a proven record, an esteemed entrepreneur and a great man,” Atwater said in a statement. “And he's just accepted the best job in the state of Florida!”
The move gives Scott another firm ally on the Cabinet. And while Patronis wouldn't commit to running for a full term as chief financial officer, Scott could have a potential friend on the campaign trail in 2018 if, as widely expected, Scott runs for U.S. Senate.
“There will be plenty of time to talk about politics later,” Patronis said Monday. “Right now, I'm just focused on doing the best job that I can as CFO for the state.” Patronis, who said Scott told him of the selection on Sunday, said he won't work at the restaurant, which has often served as a campaign backdrop for Scott.
“The role is to be a full-time officer of the state of Florida,” Patronis said. “It's impossible to put 40 hours, or 70 hours a week during the summer, here at Capt. Anderson's Restaurant and take on the role of representing every citizen.”
Bay County Commissioner Griff Griffitts, who has known Patronis since the two were a year apart in elementary school, said the former legislator and his family have given back to the community, which should translate statewide.
“He brings lots of experience, not only in the state and in the public sector, but the private sector,” Griffitts said. “His experience in the Legislature, he'll use that really well. And then his service in the restaurant industry, dealing with the public and the people every day, he will be a great CFO for the state. I don't know if it will benefit Bay County more than it will any other county in the state, other than we've got our local boy that's in this position. He will not show favoritism to anybody.”
But the Florida Democratic Party quickly blasted Scott's selection of Patronis as “cronyism.”
“Floridians are facing rising insurance rates and stagnant wages, but Rick Scott is propping up yet another yes-man rather than prioritizing the needs of workingÂ Floridians,” Democratic spokeswoman Johanna Cervone said in a prepared statement. “This governor has stacked nearly every appointment with special interest lackeys rather than the most qualified candidates."
Also, Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, a Republican who served in the Legislature with Patronis, tweeted Sunday: “Let's not forget who voted as FL PSC Commissioner to increase Utility rates on every Duke Energy and FPL.”
Democrat Jeremy Ring, a former state senator from Parkland and former executive with the internet firm Yahoo, is the only candidate who has opened a campaign account to run for chief financial officer. Ring said Monday that Scott's appointment of Patronis won't sway his decision to run. Atwater announced in February he was stepping down early to become a vice president at Florida Atlantic University managing finances and economic development.
As chief financial officer, Atwater has overseen Florida's finances, helped make Cabinet decisions on issues such as preserving land and played a number of other roles, such as serving as the state fire marshal. Atwater teamed with Scott in 2012 to push legislation intended to reform the personal-injury protection portion of auto insurance coverage.
But Atwater's support for Scott on Cabinet issues wavered in 2015 over the abrupt departure of Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey, whose exit was orchestrated by the governor's office.
Last year, Scott and Atwater also clashed in their joint appointment of a new insurance commissioner. After Atwater announced he would leave the CFO post, numerous names were mentioned as possible replacements.
They included Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, former state Rep. Tom Grady of Naples, state Sens. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, Tom Lee of Thonotosassa, Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers Jack Latvala of Clearwater, and state Rep. Joe Gruters of Sarasota.