Jeff Atwater learned a lot from his toughest campaign battle eight years ago. His biggest takeaway: Ideas matter.
The promotion Jeff Atwater thought was the job opportunity of a lifetime also came with a stern warning.
Atwater, back in 1996, was a 38-year-old bank executive for Barnett Bank, the pinnacle of the financial industry in Florida in the 1990s. The job awaiting Atwater: Market president for Barnett Bank's Broward County division, a $3.5 billion office that was a force in South Florida banking and the second largest unit in the $29 billion company.
But before Atwater officially got the job, Allen Lastinger, then the bank's president, put him on notice. “'I'm going to give you all the authority in the world,'” Atwater recalls Lastinger telling him. “'If you are afraid to use it, I will find someone who isn't. And if you misuse it, I will find someone who won't.'”
The instructions stuck with Atwater.
In fact, he used those principles to guide another career — Florida politics — so well that he's now considered a favorite to be elected Florida's chief financial officer. Atwater, a Republican state senator from North Palm Beach and the most recent past Florida Senate president, is running against three other candidates. His Democrat opposition is Loranne Ausley, an attorney from Tallahassee who served in the Florida House from 2000 to 2008.
Atwater, 52, says he's running for CFO to bring his trio of financial ideals to Tallahassee full time. The principles are balanced budgets, fiscal discipline and tax cuts.
“The CFO must root out costs that are embedded in government,” Atwater says. “We have to go after fraud in government and the private market.”
Atwater has garnered broad support in fundraising and endorsements. On the fundraising side, he has raised mroe than $4 million, of which he has spent $174,806, according to the state division of elections. And in endorsements, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush backs Atwater, along with a list of prominent statewide Democrats, including former House speakers James Harold Thompson, Lee Moffitt and Hyatt Brown.
In addition to political endorsements, people who have worked with Atwater, in banking and in government, commend his diligent approach to elected office.
“Jeff is a very hard worker,” says state Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, who entered the Senate with Atwater in 2002. “He studies an issue and doesn't take a position until he's sure of his facts.”
Tramm Hudson, a Sarasota-area banker who is active in local Republican Party politics, met Atwater at a Florida Bankers Association event 15 years ago. They stayed in touch over the years and Hudson, along with local homebuilder Pat Neal, recently hosted a fundraiser for Atwater. Hudson also contributed money to Atwater's campaign.
“He's always had a spirit for public service,” says Hudson, the Manatee-Sarasota area president for Whitney Bank. “It's more of a calling to him.”
It's a calling, and in another sense, it's a family business: Atwater's great-grandfather, Napoleon Broward, was Florida's governor from 1905 to 1909.
Public service, if not the elected kind, was also a hallmark of Atwater's parents. His late father was a World War II fighter pilot who worked for the FBI after the war and then became police chief of the Village of North Palm Beach. Atwater's mother, meanwhile, was a regular volunteer in the North Palm Beach community, who helped establish a local library in the town in 1960s.
Atwater is the fifth youngest of six kids — three boys and three girls. He played sports, especially tennis and baseball. He grew up in a modest home in North Palm Beach, where all eight Atwaters shared one bathroom. Says Atwater: “We thought we had everything we needed.”
David Norris, a friend of Atwater's since the fifth grade, says Atwater never got into trouble when they were kids, given the elder Atwater's job.
Still, Norris recalls Atwater was the funniest and sometimes goofiest one among their friends. Then Norris saw Atwater's leadership side come out when the duo attended University of Florida in the late 1970s. Atwater took on leadership roles at both a church in Gainesville and their fraternity, Kappa Alpha.
“He's always been really well-liked and popular,” says Norris, a current member of the North Palm Beach Village Council. “No one disliked him.”
Atwater went into banking after he earned his undergraduate degree and an MBA from the University of Florida. “I always wanted to go into banking,” says Atwater. “It was all about working with entrepreneurs and small-business owners who sacrificed everything to build something bigger. It was an incredibly valuable experience.”
Like many Barnett alumni statewide, Atwater's passion for the Barnett Way tapered after NationsBank bought the Florida icon in 1997. Atwater stayed with the new organization for a few years but he switched his focus to government in 2000 when he was elected to the Florida House.
Atwater's interest in banking was revived in early 2008 when Riverside National Bank founder and CEO Vernon Smith called him. Smith wanted to hire Atwater has a “rainmaker” for Palm Beach and Broward counties, where Atwater had lots of contacts and Fort Pierce-based Riverside had little traction.
Atwater accepted the offer, with the caveat that his government roles, including presiding over the Senate, would come first. The gig didn't last long: Regulators seized Riverside, one of the largest community banks in the state, in April.
Atwater acknowledges being associated with a failed bank is a disappointment, especially since his campaign opponents have used that against him. But any attacks on that record pale in comparison to the political tussle Atwater fought when he ran for state Senate for the first time.
That election was Atwater's seminal moment in politics. His opponent was Democratic icon and four-term attorney general Bob Butterworth.
“Everyone had written Jeff off on that one,” says Bennett. “They said he never had a chance. They forgot to tell him.”
Indeed, Atwater was down by 30 points in polls with 70 days left before Election Day. It was around that time Atwater received a call from Jim King, then the Senate president who was known for his blunt assessments.
King told Atwater the state Republican Party wasn't going to invest much money or time in the race because Butterworth's victory was a near-certainty. King suggested Atwater run for the House again instead.
But Atwater chipped away at Butterworth's lead.
His campaign strategy was classic underdog: Spread the message door-to-door. He held more than 80 backyard events in the two months before the election, some with fewer than 15 people. He served Pepsi and sandwiches because the budget couldn't be stretched to serve a full barbeque every night.
Atwater says a campaign of ideas, like those he used against Butterworth, invigorated him. It's a passion he still holds today, whether he talks about the inherent dangers in the overburdened Citizen's Property Insurance Corp. or why lower taxes and smaller government is the only road to long-term economic prosperity.
“I knew my odds weren't good,” says Atwater. “But you run for office because you wish to debate the ideas of your time. You don't do it to win a title.”