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Former Charlie Crist aide, Eric Eikenberg, to lead Everglades Foundation

Eric Eikenberg, a lobbyist and past chief of staff to former Gov. Charlie Crist and a seasoned Republican strategist, has landed one of the state’s most influential environmental advocacy jobs.

The Everglades Foundation, a Palmetto Bay-based group whose membership boasts deep pockets and political clout, announced Wednesday that Eikenberg will become its new chief executive.

Eikenberg has experience and connections in both Tallahassee and Washington and championed the Everglades restoration land deal Crist pitched in 2008 with the U.S. Sugar Corp., a controversial project strongly supported by the foundation and other environmental groups.

“Eric impressed us from the first moment we met,’’ foundation Chairman Paul Tudor Jones II said in a release. “He has a deep understanding of what it takes to achieve success both in Washington and Tallahassee and he has the leadership skills that will help the foundation continue to be at the forefront of Everglades restoration.’’

Eikenberg, 36, a Coral Springs native and graduate of Majory Stoneman Douglas High who will leave his current job as a Tallahassee lobbyist, said he looked forward to leading an organization he called “the premier voice when it comes to Everglades restoration.’’

With a well-heeled, well-connected board led by Jones — a billionaire hedge fund manager and avid fly-fisher who owns an Islamorada home — the foundation has significantly raised its profile and influence in shaping Everglades policies in the last few years.

Under previous chief executive Kirk Fordham -- also a former Republican political aide in Washington who resigned in March to lead Gill Action, a Colorado-based gay advocacy organization -- the foundation’s budget grew from $3.9 million in 2008 to nearly $7 million this year.

The foundation boasts a team of scientists and last year added three full-time lobbyists in Tallahassee. It’s also a major contributor to other environmental groups in the state, last year giving a total of $1.3 million to 15 other organizations.

Eikenberg comes with a similar political pedigree to Fordham but with far more Tallahassee connections.
He spent two years as Crist’s top aide. He also ran the former governor’s ill-fated senate campaign before resigning in May 2010 when Crist, facing a certain loss to Marco Rubio, quit the Republican Party to run as an independent.

Earlier, Eikenberg spent four years in Washington as chief of staff to U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw, a Fort Lauderdale Republican who was a strong supporter of the landmark $12.4 billion Everglades restoration effort. Since June 2010, Eikenberg has worked for the Holland & Knight law firm in Tallahassee, co-chairing a lobbying team with former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez.

In a foundation release, Martinez and Shaw praised the choice.

“Eric has the ability to work with anybody and find solutions to difficult problems,’’ said Shaw, who called him “the perfect fit.’’

Eikenberg, who will move to Miami with his wife, Tonya, and four children, said he was looking forward to “re-engaging’’ on Everglades issues.

“The mission is simple: Save the Everglades,’’ he said.

-- Curtis Morgan