Atwater has a lot riding on rail project

By Steve Bousquet, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief

Published Friday, December 4, 2009

TALLAHASSEE — It's put-up-or-shut-up time for state Senate President Jeff Atwater.

Can he find the votes to pass a package of passenger rail projects for Central and South Florida and secure funding for a high-speed rail system linking Tampa, Orlando and Miami?

Or will the Senate fail for the third straight time to approve the main component of the package, known as SunRail?

Defeat would be a major setback for Atwater, who is campaigning to be the state's next chief financial officer. The North Palm Beach banker is trying to prove he has the leadership skills necessary to be one of four elected members of the powerful Cabinet.

Atwater is encouraging his colleagues to embrace his "bold vision" of a statewide rail policy designed to get people off gridlocked highways, create jobs, connect the state's urban hubs and spur economic development along regional rail corridors.

Skeptics in the Senate say it's a pipe dream. The Tea Party crowd calls it a wasteful boondoggle.

As presiding officer, it's Atwater's responsibility to beg, cajole and persuade his 25 fellow Republicans to vote yes on the rail project. That task is made more difficult by a steadfast opposition leader, Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who is relentless in her questioning of the project's cost, potential financial burden and lofty job-creation projections.

Low-key and easygoing, Atwater is not an arm-twister and does not play hardball politics. No one will confuse him with former President Lyndon Johnson, legendary as U.S. Senate majority leader for giving colleagues "the treatment."

By all accounts, the Senate vote will be close, but Atwater won't share his fluctuating tally sheet.

"I'm not going to walk down names and numbers," he said. "But of course there is risk, that senators will hear good debate. It is an issue that is different."

Whenever a House speaker or Senate president simultaneously seeks higher office, he puts himself in a much larger fish bowl. His political motives are suddenly more suspect.

Recent history in Tallahassee provides Atwater a wealth of warning signs.

In 2002, Speaker Tom Feeney played hardball politics with the Senate in a reapportionment year to secure the one thing he wanted: a winnable congressional district in suburban Orlando.

In 2004, House Speaker Johnnie Byrd of Plant City faced accusations of leveraging his power to solicit campaign contributions for his U.S. Senate bid.

In 2006, Senate President Tom Lee of Brandon ran for CFO and got special interests to pump more than $1 million into a Lee-controlled political fund, even as he decried the corrosive influence of money in politics.

Atwater, who was elected to the House in 2000 and the Senate in 2002, served with all three of those men. He recalls well the pitfalls they faced and says he welcomes the scrutiny that comes with being in the oversized fish bowl.

"The transparency and the accountability, I think, are going to be critical," he said, "that the decisions that are made in full view of the public."

Speaking of accountability, let's see if Atwater can nail down the necessary votes for those rail projects.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at or (850) 224-7263.

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