Because Rick Scott Loves to Quarrel With Other Republicans, Florida's New Insurance Commissioner Is a Former Democrat

Rick Scott
Rick Scott
Photo by Gage Skidmore's Flickr | CC.20

Florida's state government is firmly controlled by Republicans, but that doesn't mean Gov. Rick Scott gets whatever he wants. Scott, at times, has a notable aversion to compromise even with others in his party and is no stranger to angering other Tallahassee Republicans. Usually, this puts him at odds with the Legislature, but he also occasionally butts head with his cabinet as well. 

The latest example is Scott's month-long standoff with state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater over who should become Florida's next insurance commissioner. Neither seemed to want to consider the other's favored candidate, so today, after a tense series of cabinet meetings, they've selected a guy who happened to be a registered Democrat until (conveniently) recently. He's now an independent. 

The drama began a year ago when Scott called for the current insurance chief, Kevin McCarthy, to resign. Scott was on a kick of trying to oust long-tenured department heads and replace them with his own appointees. 

McCarthy has served as insurance commissioner since 2003 when the job was created. Before that, he was a long-term veteran of the state's insurance regulation departments. (Notably, in 1997, he angered a Texas-based flood insurance company so much that it hired an investigator to dig into his personal life. McCarthy was publicly outed as gay as a result. He later won a lawsuit against the company.)

Scott, however, had bungled his call to oust the state's top law enforcement officer and was harshly criticized. He moved away from his calls to oust McCarthy, but this past March, McCarthy announced he was leaving anyway. 

His replacement would not be appointed by Scott alone. By law, the governor and the CFO, an elected position, must agree. A third member of the cabinet (either the attorney general or agriculture commissioner) must also sign off. The job's most important duties include deciding which insurance companies can do business in the state and setting rules to regulate rates. In Florida, this is particularly important when it comes to flood insurance. 

Well, Scott decided he very much liked Jeffrey Bragg. Atwater, however, questioned if Bragg had the proper experience in regulation. Atwater, meanwhile, favored state Rep. Bill Hager, who before moving to Florida served as Iowa's insurance commissioner, and Belinda Miller, McCarthy's chief of staff. 

On March 29, during a cabinet meeting, the two tried to choose between Bragg and Hager. Neither budged, and the decision was postponed till April 26.

Two other candidates, along with Miller, were brought in for that meeting, and the cabinet interviewed them. After finishing with the Q&As, Scott immediately launched into a prewritten statement calling for the nomination of Bragg, indicating that Scott wasn't serious about considering any of the other candidates. 

He asked for a second to the nomination. There was awkward silence for 22 seconds. Atwater clearly didn't agree. Attorney General Pam Bondi and Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam didn't want to get in between the two. Tampa Bay Times columnist John Romano dubbed it the "22 seconds of silence heard 'round Florida." 

If ever there were a display of Scott's lack of diplomacy and tact (not to mention goodwill), this was it. Scott eventually admitted the decision was at an impasse. 

Early this morning, the cabinet tried again. Only Atwater showed up in person for the meeting. Scott and the other cabinet members were piped in by phone. In addition to Bragg and Hager, three deputies from McCarthy's office were also brought in to interview. 

After the interviews, Atwater called to nominate Hager. Scott didn't second. Atwater tried again with Miller. Scott would not go along. Finally, Atwater nominated David Altmaier, a deputy commissioner, and Scott quickly agreed. 

According to the Palm Beach Post, Altmaier impressed both Scott and Atwater with his experience in the office and his focus on how his decisions will affect consumers. 

Oddly, however, Altmaier was until March (about the time McCarthy tendered his resignation) a registered Democrat. He then re-registered as an independent. The job is technically nonpartisan, but some on the left had concerns that either Bragg or Hager could bring a new ideological slant to the role. 

McCarthy will continue to serve for an extra 60 days to facilitate a smooth transition into hurricane season. 

Altmaier has a math degree and once taught high-school algebra, briefly worked in a private insurance office, and then joined the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation. He'll be paid $165,000 a year. 

In any event, neither Scott nor Atwater walked away with a win. 

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