CFO foe rips ‘no voice’ for the people, he calls it ‘loud and clear’

October 04, 2014

By Charles Elmore, The Palm Beach Post, Fla.

McClatchy-Tribune Information Service

Oct. 04–Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater holds a$3.6 million to$37,000 fundraising advantage, but challenger Will Rankin hopes torip up the script of an easy re-election win by casting the North Palm Beach banker as a lapdog of Gov. Rick Scott and big-money interests.

“He has no voice for the people,” said Rankin, 54, of Pembroke Pines. “In the 14 years he has been in Tallahassee, Atwater has done nothing measurable for average Floridians while continually supporting insurance companies and big business.”

Democrat Rankin acknowledges Republican Atwater, 56, climbed into the bully pulpit in a prominent way within the last year. Atwater asked the state’s insurance commissioner, who works in the CFO’s office, why property rates were not coming down after years of no hurricanes and falling reinsurance costs. Several insurers re-filed and most of the top 30 lowered rates.

“Of course he did that in an election year,” Rankin said. “But rates are higher than when he took office. People are not feeling better off. Where has he been for three years?”

Atwater says his voice has been “loud and clear,” from arrests of 5,000 insurance crooks to greater transparency with state contracts to pushing for accountability on rates.

“By calling out the industry and asking Florida’s Insurance Commissioner to explain why property rates were not falling in line with reductions in reinsurance, this year property rates are starting to fall,” Atwater said. “There’s no doubt that my efforts have directly resulted in positive results for ratepayers.”

Their campaign contribution records are a study in contrasts. Atwater’s list of 3,884 campaign contributions as of last week ranged alphabetically from A&A Registered Agent, an insurance concern in Coral Gables, to Zurich American Insurance Co., records show. Rankin’s biggest contributor: himself with about$15,000.

A former Republican, Rankin submits a resume that lists a campaign budget director’s role for GOP vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp and a post as director of asset management in the Ohio Treasurer’s Office in the 1990s. This year, he is running as a Democrat, a party convert not unlike Charlie Crist in the governor’s race. Unlike Crist, Rankin doesn’t have the backing of the state party.

Democrat Allie Braswell quit the race following disclosures he repeatedly filed for personal bankruptcy, leaving the field to Rankin. A state Democratic party spokesman declined comment.

Rankin’s website said he has endorsements from groups including the Democratic Veterans Caucus of Florida, the Democratic Women’s Club of Florida and the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans.

By the time voting begins, Rankin hopes to appeal to folks like state workers who were required to contribute 3 percent of their pay to their pensions in a plan backed by Scott, in the name of holding down costs to the state. Rankin says the pension fund is in better shape than it is often portrayed.

“Where was Atwater’s voice?” Rankin said. “He was silent.”

Rankin says he would push for repeal of the pension contribution by state workers and form an insurance commission to promote fair rates and practices, along with initiatives to boost jobs and the economy.

A financial disclosure form for Rankin lists less than$25,000 in checking, savings and investments and$300,000 in intellectual property including Millionaire Lifestyle magazine, a venture he said he was based in South Africa. Income includes a little less than$10,000 from military retirement and disability pay and$144,000 from a bankruptcy settlement involving a Swedish firm.

“Honestly, this would be the highest W-2 job I’ve had,” Rankin told The Post’s editorial board about the$129,000 CFO job.

Atwater disclosed a net worth at$1.9 million, including banking, retirement and investment accounts.

During his term, the GOP incumbent defended a 10 percent cap on annual rate increases for state-run insurer Citizens, a “glide path” he helped create while in the state legislature. He resisted others in his party who pushed for higher rates because he argued it could hurt families and economic growth.

Atwater also lobbied for a homeowner bill of rights passed by legislators last spring. He hailed the one-page document handed to consumers when they file claims as a “much-needed resource.” Some advocates wanted the bill to go further and take on more controversial topics, like limits on insurers’ tactics such as examination of consumers under oath.

Not all his appearances in the headlines were ones he welcomed. Atwater, who appoints two of nine board members to Citizens and helps oversee its management, met with the principal of a West Palm Beach law firm, Scott Link, two days before the Citizens board approved a controversial$6.5 million contract with Link’s firm, The Post reported in January.

Atwater’s aides said the meeting was purely to help consumers resolve insurance problems and was unrelated to Atwater’s interest in the presidency of Florida Atlantic University, where Scott Link’s spouse and firm partner Wendy Link served as one of 15 members of FAU’s search committee. Atwater interviewed for the FAU job but was not named a finalist.

As CFO, Atwater touts improved transparency inTallahassee by putting the state’s$55 billion in private contracts online.U.S. Public Interest Research Group credited his efforts in raising its transparency grade forFlorida from a D to an A-minus and a No. 3 ranking in the country, he said.

Atwater holds a 43 percent to 27 percent advantage in a poll released last week by theFlorida Chamber Political Institute. That leaves Rankin to find whatever encouragement he can from this statistic: Nearly 30 percent were undecided.

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(c)2014 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

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