Republican lawmaker named president of South Florida State College

State Representative Fred Hawkins, R-St. Cloud, was selected Wednesday by the trustees of South Florida State College to succeed retiring school president Thomas Leitzel.

Hawkins, who has served in the House since 2020, was the only finalist for the position. Details of Hawkins’ proposed contract will not be available until the trustees’ meeting on June 21, a South Florida State College spokeswoman said.

Leitzel will retire on June 30 and Hawkins is expected to assume the presidency on July 3, pending approval of a contract.

Hawkins did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday from The News Service of Florida. But last month, after being named the sole finalist, Hawkins suggested that his time as an elected official would end soon.

“Pages turn and new chapters begin. I am looking forward to becoming the next president of South Florida State College. My time as an elected official has been the highlight of my life, especially serving in the Florida House,” Hawkins said in a May 10 Twitter post.

Hawkins served from 2008 to 2020 on the Osceola County Commission. But Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended it in July 2020 after Hawkins was accused of impersonating a law enforcement officer. Hawkins was elected to the House in November 2020.

During a special legislative session this year, Hawkins sponsored a high-profile bill that was a priority for DeSantis. The bill gave DeSantis the authority to appoint to the board of the former Reedy Creek Improvement District, which was also renamed the Central Florida Tourism Supervisory District. The change came amid an acrimonious dispute between DeSantis and The Walt Disney Co., which had long profited from the Reedy Creek district.

A spokesman for DeSantis did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday about the selection of Hawkins as president of the university, which has campuses in Highlands, DeSoto and Hardee counties.

Critics of Hawkins’ selection have suggested that the choice was purely political.

“Another Republican politician with no real qualifications for a job like this being appointed to run a university. Institutions of higher education should not serve as job placement schemes for political cronies. The scam is real,” Thomas Kennedy, a Florida member of the Democratic National Committee, said in a Twitter post Wednesday.

In recent weeks, three candidates have filed papers to run for the Hawkins House District 35 seat in Osceola and Orange counties. Candidates filed to run in the 2024 election. But with Hawkins leaving the seat vacant, DeSantis is likely to call a special election to determine a replacement.

Republican Demetries Andrew Grimes and Democrat Tom Keen opened campaign accounts in May, while Democrat Rishi Bagga launched a campaign account on Monday.

Grimes expressed his support for Hawkins on Wednesday.

“Congratulations to (Hawkins) on being officially named president of South Florida State College! The school is in good hands,” Grimes said in a tweet.

Meanwhile, Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, voiced her support for Bagga in a potential special election.

“Let the Special Election begin, excited to see (Bagga) run again!” Eskamani said in a tweet.

Democratic data consultant Matthew Isbell raised the possibility of the seat going to Democrats, who are badly outnumbered in the Legislature.

“With the resignation of Rep. Fred Hawkins, this Biden +5 seat opens. For the Democrats to flip this seat would be another morale boost. It was red in 2022 with a very uneven participation. Big Q (question) will be how strong the Hispanic turnout will be in the Democrats field game, 80% of the vote is from Orange (county),” Isbell said in a tweet.