Acrimony, rather than ideas, has taken the stage in the contest for Florida chief financial officer.
The race between Republican incumbent Jimmy Patronis and former state Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Broward County Democrat, is an undercard to the November battles for Governor and U.S. Senator and has been marked by attacks.
Recently, Patronis also has needed to shift attention to his wife undergoing surgery for breast cancer and to his hometown of Panama City taking a devastating hit from Hurricane Michael.
Often, the Chief Financial Officer job draws less attention than the other Cabinet positions of attorney general and agriculture commissioner. But the job has a wide range of duties, including overseeing the state’s purse strings, serving as the state fire marshal and voting on Cabinet issues.
Ring admits the position is “extraordinarily important but the lowest profile.”
But attention in the campaign has focused on issues that have relatively little to do with the job’s duties and instead has involved such things as Ring’s resume at the internet company Yahoo, Patronis’ crash of a state-issued car while driving to a meeting with a political consultant and Patronis’ ties to Gov. Rick Scott.
“This race has gone very negative very quickly with each creating a website attacking the other — and especially supporters of the other — for all sorts of questionable behavior, unethical and/or illegal,” University of Central Florida political-science professor Aubrey Jewett said.
Ring, noting that former state CFO Alex Sink helped guide the state through the recession a decade ago, painted Patronis as a “nice guy” who is only in his current job due to Scott’s patronage. Scott appointed Patronis to the Cabinet post after former CFO Jeff Atwater resigned last year.
“If Rick Scott was CEO of HCA today, he wouldn’t hire (Patronis) in a junior finance position in his accounting department,” Ring said, referring to Scott’s background as a hospital executive. “He’d hire him as a community relations person for his hospital, because that’s what he’s good at.”
Patronis campaign, meanwhile, has applied the tag “Risky Ring” to its opponent, characterizing the Parkland Democrat’s entrepreneurial track record as “flops and failures.”
“Ring talks up his experience at Yahoo, but his business record in Florida tells a different story, with multiple business ventures flopping or failing just years after Ring started them or took control,” Katie Strickland, a spokeswoman for the Patronis campaign, said.
Kathryn DePalo, who teaches in Florida International University’s Department of Politics and International Relations, expects heavy party-line voting in the contest. It will be on the Nov. 6 ballot along with the gubernatorial race between Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis and the U.S. Senate race between Scott and incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson.
“This is probably the least-known race, so it will come down to which party voters pick at the top of the ticket,” DePalo said. “The one wrench in all of that could be ticket splitting, particularly among NPAs (no-party affiliation voters). If they, say, vote for Gillum for governor and Scott for Senate, then it will be which party they tend to lean toward anyway for these Cabinet races.”
Patronis, 46, is part of a family that operates the half-century-old Capt. Anderson’s Restaurant in Panama City.
An early supporter of Scott’s first gubernatorial run in 2010, Patronis served eight years in the Florida House and was chairman of the House Economic Affairs Committee. Scott appointed Patronis to the Florida Public Service Commission before choosing him to succeed Atwater as CFO.
Last week, Patronis publicly disclosed that his wife, Katie, was being treated for breast cancer. Meanwhile, he rushed to Panama City to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.
In his campaign ads, Patronis has highlighted his support during this year’s Legislative Session for a new workers’ compensation insurance law designed to assist first responders who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Patronis said he’d like to work with lawmakers to bring down the state corporate income-tax rate as a response to a federal tax package approved in December.
“Because of what happened at the federal level, we’re seeing gasoline being poured on the fire and this rush of folks to move from the Northeast, the Michigans, the New Yorks, the Bostons, the Connecticuts, to a less-tax environment like we have in Florida,” Patronis said. “They’re bringing their wealth, they’re bringing their money. They’re bringing their jobs.”
Ring, 48, spent five years with Yahoo, coming aboard in 1996 as the company’s first sales chief, four years after he graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in advertising.
Patronis’ political committee Treasure Florida accused Ring in an ad of falsely claiming to be a founder of Yahoo, but the sources for the claim were three media reports in which the writers affixed the “founder” label.
Ring served in the state Senate from 2006 to 2016, where he was focused on issues involving venture capital, insurance and pensions. Widely viewed as a moderate Democrat, he pushed to create the State Office of Technology and helped establish the Florida Growth Fund through a bill that encouraged the State Board of Administration to invest a portion of state retirement money in “high-growth” homegrown tech companies.
Ring, a Massachusetts native, said if elected CFO, his priorities would be such things as protecting the state retirement system and expanding an “innovation economy” in the state.
Ring is also critical of how the Cabinet has operated under Scott, meeting infrequently and spending most of the time it does meet on ceremonial activities, such as handing out awards and highlighting dogs in need of adoption.
“This is the state board of directors of Florida. It has to start acting that way. It has to start meeting once or twice every month and act the way the board is supposed to act,” Ring said. “If this was a publicly traded company, the shareholders would revolt.”