Governor's new top aide an old hand at 31

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published December 8, 2007

At the age of 31, Eric Eikenberg is already an old hand at state and national government and politics.

He'd better be.

As Gov. Charlie Crist's new chief of staff, Eikenberg must replace George LeMieux, who's worn out after five years at Crist's side and is eager to get back to his family and law practice.

"I've packed 20 years of life into one year in terms of experiences," LeMieux said.

LeMieux and Crist grew so close in their two years on the campaign trail that the aide could anticipate Crist's reaction to any situation.

Eikenberg played no role in Crist's campaign, and doesn't have that same bonding experience.

But LeMieux considers Eikenberg a brother, and he'll be a phone call away when Eikenberg needs help.

That's why LeMieux is staying in Tallahassee, despite his fondness for "God's Country," his native Broward County.

In Fort Lauderdale, at age 22, Eikenberg ran a legislative campaign for a young Republican named George LeMieux, who lost that 1998 race. Had he won, both of their lives would have taken different paths.

But LeMieux went back to his law office and awaited his chance to help Charlie Crist get elected attorney general in 2002. Eikenberg ran the 2000 re-election campaign of U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw, who was in the fight of his life up to that point.

Shaw beat Democrat Elaine Bloom by 599 votes out of more than 210,000 votes cast though the close call would be overshadowed by another race that would be settled by 537 votes.

Eikenberg joined Shaw's staff and became chief of staff in 2002, supervising about two dozen people, advancing Shaw's agenda and working with other members of Congress and their staffs.

"When you're working in Washington, you're working with a lot of egos," Shaw said. "He's tremendously mature for his 31 years. I think he's a great choice."

Asked about Eikenberg's mettle under pressure, Shaw thought of two crises they endured: responding to the problems caused by Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and that 2000 campaign.

"He's been through times when he had to be innovative," Shaw said. "In a close race, there's a lot of tension, and he was right there on the ground."

After Shaw lost his last race to Ron Klein in 2006, LeMieux quickly hired Eikenberg as a deputy chief of staff, reuniting them.

Crist's honeymoon with the Legislature is long over, and the New Year will bring uncertainty over property taxes, more budget pressures, an unpredictable presidential race and various unknown crises.

LeMieux says Eikenberg is ready for all of it.

"He's got a great way with people. He's a hard worker. He's got great subtlety, which is important in this job," LeMieux said of his protege. "I think he will excel."

Jim Krog, who served as chief of staff under Gov. Lawton Chiles, says Eikenberg's age is not important. What matters, Krog says, is how well Eikenberg reacts to problems.

"That job is nothing more than moving the governor's priorities, but more than anything, it's solving problems when they come up," Krog said. "I don't think it's a function of age. It's more a function of experience."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.