TALLAHASSEE – Just a few years ago, Alex Sink couldn’t have envisioned her position today: Atop the Florida Democratic Party, hoping to lead a resurgence after it has been out of power in state politics for more than a decade.
In an eventful summer, the first-term chief financial officer has toiled behind the scenes to pick up Democratic endorsements and campaign cash — and worked to craft an image that has eluded Democrats in recent years, that of a budget-hawk conservative.
A career banker who had never run for office until the CFO job opened up in 2006, Sink, 61, said her swift rise in Democratic circles was “totally unintentional.”
“I think she represents the new face of the Democratic Party, as to fiscal responsibility,” said House Democratic Leader Franklin Sands, D-Weston. “We’ve been tagged as being bleeding heart liberals, and that’s not really accurate. Now it’s time for us to define ourselves, and she is the definition of the Democratic Party.”
With the 2010 election still 15 months away, Adelaide “Alex” Sink faces significant obstacles. Two polls this week show her trailing her likely Republican rival, Attorney General Bill McCollum. And many voters don’t know who she is.
In an interview, Sink said she plans to weave a personal narrative through her campaign. She grew up on a farm in Mount Airy, N.C., the town that inspired Andy Griffith‘s Mayberry. The future math major was put in charge of the family checkbook as soon as she learned to write in cursive, at 10 years old. She even made her own clothes, she said, becoming “quite the seamstress.”
“I think it’s important for Floridians to know a lot more about me on a personal level,” said Sink, who still speaks with a Southern lilt. Indeed, Sink’s first campaign-style video emphasizes her farm-girl roots, “where hard work and self-reliance were a way of life,” an announcer says.
In Tallahassee, Sink has spent two-plus years as CFO forging an image not as a partisan flamethrower, but more of a measured policy wonk.
Sink calls her job a perfect fit for a self-described “math nerd.” When she came into office in 2007, she put jars of beans around her office, a reminder of a 2006 campaign attack dismissing her as a mere “bean counter.”
As CFO, Sink combined 11 consumer hotline call centers into two, saving millions in overhead. And she pulled the plug on Project Aspire, a program to standardize the state’s accounting system that had drained $89 million with little to show for it.
Republicans, though, say her two-plus years in office have been light on accomplishments. “I think Alex Sink, from a public service standpoint, is going to have a hard time promoting specific decisions she’s made that have benefited Floridians,” said Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer.
Even if Sink has focused on money-saving moves that are small in light of Florida’s $65 billion budget, she says they indicate how she’ll govern: with an eye on items that don’t usually grab headlines, like contracting and operational efficiency.
As she told the fiscally conservative Florida TaxWatch last week, “I’m full with enormous ideas about waste. We can run government more efficiently. There are still, I believe, hundreds of millions of dollars out there. Let’s go after that.”
Sink said that’s why she wants to be governor — to apply her business experience to ferret out waste in the dozens of agencies run by the governor. Her campaign also will have a broader theme, one that is so far lacking specifics: creating a new economy for Florida. She notes the state seems stuck in a boom-bust cycle, built on growth and real estate.
“It always bursts. And then we get left behind,” said Sink.
Still, Sink — and her CFO office — remain something of a mystery to most voters. Functioning similar to a state treasurer, the CFO oversees 13 agencies and about 3,000 employees. She is also the state’s fire marshal, reflecting the hodgepodge of duties combined to create the office in 2002.
Another part of Sink’s background is more politically complicated: Her quarter-century as a banker, culminating as Florida chief for Bank of America from 1998-2000, when she retired. In an era of bailouts and bonuses, the public seems fed up with big banks.
Allies, though, say Sink has the kind of story and experience that will appeal to voters. “She’s had a career outside of politics. It’s a background voters are looking for,” said Sink pollster David Beattie.
Sink and her husband, 2002 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride, have two kids. Bert McBride is a senior at Stanford University and an offensive lineman on the football team. Her daughter, Lexi, is entering her junior year at Sink’s alma mater, Wake Forest University.
Sink, a millionaire from her banking career, lives in Thonotosassa, near Tampa.
“I had my own perspective, I have the perspective of a business woman, a farm girl, a working mom, a PTA mom,” said Sink. “I want to bring my business experience in here and look at the way government is run. And it’s not run very efficiently.”