Robert Milligan has been compared to the Roman patriot Cincinnatus, who in the 5th century, B.C., was twice called from his farm to help save the republic. Except in Milligan’s case it wasn’t a plow he put down in service of his state, but golf clubs.
A retired Marine Corps lieutenant general living in Panama City, Florida, Milligan was approached by the state Republican Party in 1994 and asked to run for state comptroller. Milligan accepted and began building a campaign organization, which consisted of him, his wife, an old friend from the military and a budget of $100,000 from small donations.
It was actually the issue of campaign contributions that piqued Milligan’s passion for the job. It turns out that Milligan’s war chest was relatively small for a reason: In Florida, the comptroller’s office doesn’t just watch the state’s books, it regulates the financial industry, from banking to securities. “I didn’t get a single contribution from anyone in the regulated community,” Milligan says. “They were afraid of retribution.”
Retribution from whom? The person the industry WAS giving money to: the long-time Democratic incumbent, who had a campaign stash 11 times larger than Milligan’s.
The fact that an elected official could wind up so beholden to the community he was supposed to regulate bothered Milligan a lot. But it didn’t seem like there was much he’d ever get to do about it. The week before the election, he was down more than 10 percentage points in the polls. During the last weekend of the race, he threw every dime of his state matching money — another $100,000 — into a media buy.
It turned out to be public money well spent. He won by 100,000 votes and dug into his new job.
Milligan proceeded on two fronts. First, he reinvented the organization. “When I arrived, there were 82 people in our Miami field office and nobody in charge. Every decision was made from this corner office.” Milligan quickly put directors into the regions and cut them loose. “I told them I didn’t want to hear from them unless they had a policy question or they needed my support.” The staff, he says, “responded spectacularly.”
He also overhauled audits. “There were literally people in green eyeshades with those rubber things on their thumbs going through wire baskets of paper.” He automated the whole process, honing in on the 10 percent of transactions that represented 97 percent of the state’s expenditures.
Then he turned to address his larger concern — that elected officials, inherently subjected to political pressure, shouldn’t also be in the position of regulating business and industry. The first year of his tenure he pushed a bill to divest the state comptroller of such powers. “I got slam-dunked,” he says. Too many people, it turned out, had too vested an interest in the campaign quid pro status quo.
Milligan saw new opportunity in 1998, when the state convened a constitutional revision commission. The plan he presented to it was to combine the elective treasurer and comptroller jobs into a single state chief financial officer, a position with no regulatory powers. By design, the plan paid double dividends: The treasurer had also been in the regulatory business, overseeing the insurance industry.
The revision commission liked the idea and so did voters, ratifying the change by ballot. That left the legislature to come up with a new regulatory system for the finance and insurance industries. When lawmakers balked at the task, Milligan threatened to run for a third term and continue to hound them if they didn’t act.
It was all lawmakers needed to hear. Milligan got his nonpartisan regulators. And in January, Milligan will leave Tallahassee as he had hoped and return to Panama City. He won’t exactly be going out to pasture, though. Milligan says he’ll continue to be involved in civic affars but not to such an extent that he can’t pick up the golf clubs regularly.
— Jonathan Walters
Photos by Phil Sears