Politics & Government

Senate chief has politics in his blood

TALLAHASSEE — When friends say Senate President Jeff Atwater has Florida politics in his blood, they’re not just talking in metaphors. Governor No. 19, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward (1905-1909), is his great-grandfather. Governor No. 23, Cary Hardee (1921-1925), is his great-uncle.

But Atwater, 50, has had family members in a host of Florida industries — working on railroads and in orange groves. His father was an FBI agent and World War II fighter pilot; his mother always volunteered at his schools.

“I’ve had a family that has taught me much by their experiences,” said Atwater, whose middle name is Hardee and who hung a picture of Gov. Broward in his Senate office. Both governors have counties named after them.

Atwater said he’ll draw inspiration from those relatives and the Florida citizens and small business owners he has met as a banker and lawmaker since 2000. Atwater was elected Senate president in November, but his work will begin in earnest with the opening of the 60-day legislative session Tuesday.

It’s a difficult time to be leading the chamber. Over the next two years Atwater will preside over a Senate that will try to balance the state budget while facing shrinking revenues and increasing expenses. When House and Senate lawmakers can’t resolve differences over bills, it’ll be Atwater and incoming House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, who will negotiate agreements.

Already, Atwater has been an active leader. He helped call a special session of the Legislature in January, when lawmakers passed a $2.5 billion deficit-reduction plan that tapped reserves, borrowed from trust funds, raised traffic fines and cut the state’s budget to $65.5 billion because of declining tax revenues. He also created a committee to help find solutions for the state’s economic and financial problems.

Friends and fellow lawmakers say Atwater’s strength is making people feel heard and valued and creating consensus. That’s something he has done in the past by ordering pizza and letting two sides talk until late in his office, said former legislative aide Jessica Jaeger. As a boss, many Fridays he’d leave thank you notes on the chairs of staff members just to say he appreciated their work, Jaeger said.

Praise for Atwater doesn’t just come from Republicans, who outnumber Democrats in the state Senate 26-14.

“He’s really a very nice person who is very gracious and down to earth,” said Sen. Dave Aronberg, of Greenacres, the only Democrat in the Legislature who chairs a standing committee. He was appointed by Atwater.

Because their districts are near each other, Aronberg and Atwater used to sit at adjoining desks in the Senate, where Aronberg says he often caught Atwater snacking on peanut M&Ms but also sought his advice on legislation.

In particular, Atwater has worked on laws that make it tougher to change the Florida Constitution, so that 60, not 50, percent of voters must agree to make changes. As the head of a committee that regulates health care, he worked on changing Medicaid.

“I’d much rather be involved in the issues of great consequence, as difficult as they may be ... than try to participate in setting a record for the number of bills passed,” he said.

Some of Atwater’s most visible work has been on property insurance. It was a panel Atwater co-chaired last year that grilled insurance company executives, asking why Floridians weren’t getting lower rates despite new legislation.

A bill he sponsored doubled fines on insurers violating state law and made it harder for them to increase rates; the bill also froze rates for the more than 1 million customers of state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Co. for another year.

Some lawmakers called the bill risky, but the state got lucky and hasn’t been hit by a major hurricane — yet.

Lawmakers who roomed with him during past sessions say if Atwater has a weakness it is white chocolate-covered Oreos.

“You’d see him with his milk and cookies and briefing books. He was a night owl many times. He’d be up late,” said Sen. Mike Haridopolos, a former roommate. Haridopolos, R-Indialantic, is from a district north of Atwater’s and is in line to become Senate president after Atwater.

This year’s session will likely bring more late nights, in particular because lawmakers will have to find a way to bridge a $5 billion gap between expected revenue and planned spending. Atwater says he knows the result may be less time to shape other policies he’d like to see, including promoting small businesses and making the state a leader in the life sciences.

Atwater said he’d like to attract more businesses like the Torrey Pines Institute and the Scripps Research Institute, both on Florida’s east coast and prepare Florida students to be leaders in the life sciences. He thinks Florida should be the place where breakthroughs are made in curing Alzheimer’s disease and breast cancer and better understanding autism.

Atwater moved from St. Louis, where his dad had been working, to Florida with his family when he was 4. He’s one of six children and grew up to love Florida history and baseball. His first job was delivering newspapers around the corner from where he now lives. When he first ran for the Florida House, the initial signature on his ballot petition came from one of his old customers.

“You delivered newspapers to my house, and now I’m going to deliver you to the Florida House,” the woman told him.

He won that election but didn’t stay in the House long. Two years later he ran against former Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat, for an open Senate seat. The hatchet-shaped District 25 runs along Florida’s east coast from about Wilton Manors through Boca Raton to Palm Beach and jogs inland to capture Palm Beach Gardens and horse-friendly Wellington with its miles of trails.

The area is affluent, and Atwater’s estimated worth is about $1.8 million according to his most recent financial disclosure filing. But it’s Atwater who cuts the lawn at his North Palm Beach home.

“There’s not a pretentious bone in his body,” said Sen. Ken Pruitt, Atwater’s predecessor as president. Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, said Atwater’s speaking ability has also always impressed him. “If he wasn’t a legislator-banker, boy he would be a great minister,” Pruitt said.

Instead, Atwater studied finance at the University of Florida, graduating in 1981. He later returned to the school for an MBA after he joined the legislature, getting his degree in 2002. Friends say he’s a family man who talks to his wife and four children regularly while in Tallahassee.

Other lawmakers tell the story of how every morning he ties his shoe laces in a double knot — the way his mom taught him and he taught children. He says it’s a way of remembering his roots and his family throughout the day: from Broward and Hardee down to his children.