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Bush talent search sets Florida abuzz

Who will step from the state to a national stage? Names are flying

©Associated Press

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 16, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- Will Mr. Brogan go to Washington? Or Mr. Thrasher?

Possibly Ms. Higgins and Ms. Fowler.

As President-elect George W. Bush puts together his administration, it is a sure bet he will come looking in Florida, where his brother Gov. Jeb Bush can provide a good idea of who would be a good fit.

Former House Speaker and loyal Republican John Thrasher is being touted by the party as a good choice for the new Bush administration.

Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, equally loyal, is not being pushed, however. That's because he is the Republican Party's fastest-rising star for future elected office in Florida.

Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas met with transition officials in Virginia last week and is meeting with Jeb Bush on Monday to talk about how Florida might be able to screen possible new hires for the incoming administration.

In such a short transition, help from Jeb Bush's administration would be appreciated.

"I could see this (conversation): "Brother, since it took so long to get the vote out of Florida, I could use some of your folks,' " said Mike Hightower, a top George W. Bush fundraiser in Florida.

Cardenas will have a large role in providing names to the new White House staff.

"At the top of my list is John Thrasher," Cardenas said. "He was an outstanding speaker. Someone with John's talents should serve in Washington in a significant capacity."

Cardenas mentioned possible jobs in the Department of Justice or in some health care capacity. Before he was elected to the Legislature, Thrasher was a health care lobbyist.

Brogan, a former state education commissioner, has been mentioned as a possible candidate for education secretary. But Florida Republicans see him as a future U.S. senator, or the heir to the governorship.

"I'm going to fight hard to keep Frank Brogan" in Florida, Cardenas said.

Robin Higgins, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs, is being mentioned in national circles as a possible secretary of veterans affairs. Higgins oversees a department responsible for 1.7-million veterans, the largest of any state except California.

A former Marine Corps colonel, Higgins worked under President George Bush -- the Bush brothers' father -- as deputy assistant secretary of labor. In 1988, Higgins' husband, Lt. Col. William R. Higgins, was captured and later murdered by terrorists in Lebanon.

Asked whether she'd been contacted by the transition team, Higgins demurred. "Hmmm, things are, um, moving very quickly," she said. So has she been asked? "Let's not go there," she responded.

Retiring Republican U.S. Rep. Tillie Fowler's name comes up when talking about a possible future secretary of the Navy. Fowler represented the Jacksonville area in Congress, spent years on the House Armed Services Committee and was a top advocate for the Navy. She didn't seek re-election this year.

Fowler's press secretary Tom Alexander said she hasn't been asked yet.

Another name that has come up in national circles is David Struhs, the director of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, to replace another Floridian, Carol Browner, as head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Republican insider Tom Slade, a former GOP chairman, calls Struhs and Fowler "almost slam dunks" for jobs.

Brogan, Thrasher and Struhs did not immediately return calls for comment Friday.

Other names mentioned in Tallahassee or Washington include outgoing U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum of Longwood, who lost his bid for the Senate and said he might be interested in a Bush team job; and Democrat Bob Crawford, the state agriculture secretary who supported the candidacies of both Jeb Bush and George W. Bush.

Crawford was in New York on Friday, but spokesman Terry McElroy said he is happy in his current job. "He's had no contact from the new administration," McElroy said.

There also are reports that Crawford is about to move from his current job and into one of the highest-paying state posts, a $238,000-a-year position at the Department of Citrus, as a reward for supporting George W. Bush. But he has not applied for it, and some of the commissioners who decide on the job say they haven't discussed giving him the post.

Nevertheless, several political operatives in Tallahassee say Crawford wants the Citrus job.

"He's fixing to take a job he can't afford not to," said former GOP Chairman Slade. Slade said he thinks Crawford is going to get the Citrus Department job and will be leaving "within the next couple of weeks or so."

The Citrus Department's executive director, Daniel L. Santangelo, resigned Nov. 30 during an investigation into whether the agency improperly awarded contracts.

Crawford's term as agriculture commissioner is up in January 2003.

- The South Florida Sun-Sentinel contributed to this report.

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