October 1, 2014

campaign finance

This Accountant Keeps Candidates Squeaky Clean

Nancy Watkins is the GOP's go-to accountant.

Amy Keller | 9/1/2009
"Political and public policy organizations are my domain, but I need Robert’s unique knowledge and skills in certain areas. The same happens with his more ‘normal’ accounting work with closely held for-profit entities. There are certain areas of work they need that I have a special talent for," Watkins explains.

Today, Watkins serves as the treasurer on dozens of state and federal candidates’ campaigns, political action committees, leadership PACs and various 527 groups. In any given election cycle, Robert Watkins & Co. will handle the finances of more than 100 political entities. Current and former clients include U.S. Reps. Vern Buchanan, Gus Bilirakis and Bill Posey, ex-Rep. Katherine Harris, Hillsborough County School Board member Carol Kurdell, the Tew Cardenas PAC and the Ruden McClosky Committee for Good Government.

With the advent of e-mail and the internet, Watkins has been able to expand her business nationwide. "Probably a larger volume of business at any given time might be outside Florida," she says. One rapidly growing segment of her political client base involves the tax-

exempt organizations organized under section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code to raise money for political activities like issue advocacy or voter mobilization activities. The 2002 McCain-Feingold law placed new limits on fund raising by the national party committees, which has accelerated the growth of such groups, she says. The 527 groups are required to disclose their activities and financing to the Internal Revenue Service, and her clients include more than a dozen Florida groups with innocuous-sounding names such as the Broward Coalition for Justice and Equality, Citizens for Change and Florida Leadership Alliance.

Watkins’ services don’t come cheap. The campaigns of Posey and Bilirakis, for instance, pay about $2,500 a month for Watkins’ help, according to disbursement records in their campaign finance reports. Watkins says she only works the GOP side of the ledger, sticking with those candidates who subscribe to her own ideals of "limited government and more freedom."

However, she says, "We won’t do all Republicans. There’s some Republicans you couldn’t pay me enough." Watkins says she draws the line "at ethics and integrity" and will only work for those elected officials who have run for the right reasons and "want to serve their constituents, not their own egos and ambitions." Fortunately, she says, there are "still a lot of those types left — more than enough to keep me busy."

Nancy Watkins

Nancy WatkinsRoots: Born in Miami Beach, Watkins has lived all over the U.S. because her father was a military pilot. His nine-year assignment in Washington, D.C., introduced Watkins to the national political stage. A close family friend was executive officer to President Lyndon Johnson. "It was a normal world to go to a bill signing at the Rose Garden, to go to the Easter egg hunt at the White House."

Education: Accounting degree from the University of South Florida; associate’s degree from Hillsborough Community College

Daredevil: Watkins earned her private pilot’s license in 1976 at age 21. The GOP numbers-cruncher can perform a "wingover," an aerial maneuver where the airplane enters a steep banking climb into a near stall and then allows the nose to fall into a vertical dive until a normal flight path is resumed in the opposite direction. Watkins has given up flying and skydiving but still enjoys scuba diving in the Keys.

Importance of Hiring an Experienced Treasurer: "Having a fund raiser do it is tantamount to having your sales force do your tax returns."

Credo: "Every detail matters. Somebody’s political career is on the line. That’s what I remember every day."

Political Ambitions: Watkins says she is frequently approached about running for office and considered running for former Rep. Sam Gibbons’ seat in 1994 but decided against it. "I don’t want to live in this fishbowl. I do get to see the sausage-making side of politics."

Tags: Politics & Law, Banking & Finance, Government/Politics & Law

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