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By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published December 7, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - The man who gets most of the credit for Gov. Charlie Crist's success is leaving his side after a year as chief of staff to return to the law books and a growing family.
George LeMieux will be replaced by a close friend and protege, Eric Eikenberg, 31, who now serves as one of four deputy chiefs of staff under Crist. He is the youngest gubernatorial chief of staff in decades.
Working behind the scenes, LeMieux, 38, is not known to most Floridians. But he and Crist forged a close friendship in Fort Lauderdale a decade ago and have been inseparable for the past five years in the Attorney General's Office, the 2006 campaign and transition, and a fast-paced first year of Crist's term.
LeMieux shaped campaign strategy, assembled a staff and gave Crist advice every step of the way.
He negotiated with legislators on Crist's policy agenda and a 25-year agreement that allows the Seminole Tribe of Florida to operate seven Las Vegas-style casinos.
It was LeMieux who urged Crist to snub President Bush in Pensacola the day before the 2006 election, a move that deeply antagonized White House political adviser Karl Rove, but kept Crist at a safe distance from the president's sinking popularity.
Crist called LeMieux's departure bittersweet.
"I have three sisters, and they're great, but I really don't have a brother except George," Crist said. "It's important to realize that life goes on. Things change."
LeMieux and his wife Meike have three children age 4 or younger. He teared up as he described what he learned most from Crist.
"He's made me more decent and more kind and more patient and more caring of others through his example," said LeMieux.
LeMieux can be assured of a big paycheck as a lawyer who enjoys unmatched access to his ex-boss.
He also will continue to give advice to Crist and may hold an as-yet-undefined and unpaid post advising Crist on business development projects.
LeMieux gave assurances that it won't lead to conflicts of interest.
"We will do it as this governor has taught us, and we will act in an honorable and ethical way," he said.
Eikenberg managed LeMieux's unsuccessful bid for a state House seat in 1998.
Like LeMieux, a Broward County native, he spent four years on Capitol Hill as chief of staff to U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw and joined Crist's staff after Shaw lost his re-election bid last year. He earns $120,000 a year.
Eikenberg is taking charge as Crist faces challenges on multiple fronts: a bleak budget year, a public unhappy about taxes and a gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe that's under attack by the Legislature in the courts.
Crist said everything will be fine because they're such a close-knit group. "The team endures," he said.Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com.
Chief of staff to Gov. Charlie Crist
Education: B.A., political science, American University, Washington, D.C., 1998.
Political: chief of staff to U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, 2002-2006; deputy executive director, Republican Party of Florida, 2001-2002; campaign manager, Shaw for Congress, 2000.
[Last modified December 6, 2007, 23:18:12]