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From Pence's chief to town council

Jim Atterholt brings experience working for future Vice President to Fort Myers Beach

April 22, 2020
Nathan Mayberg ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Fort Myers Beach is witnessing a rare occurrence for any town or city, let alone a small one.

Its town council boasts the former chief of staff to Mike Pence, the Vice President of the United States.

Jim Atterholt, who served Pence when he was governor of Indiana, received the most votes in a seven-way race for three seats the town council last month.

Article Photos

Jim and Brenda Atterholt

Atterholt had an extensive career in Indiana politics, serving two terms in the state assembly, chairing the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission and serving as state insurance commissioner.

He worked on Capitol Hill as chief of staff to Indiana Congressman Dan Burton. He had gone door to door to every congressional office before finding the job, at a time when one could do so. Burton had three openings at the time. "A lot of it is luck," Atterholt said. "I was very idealistic."

Atterholt was serving as chairman of the utility regulatory commission when he left in 2018 and moved to Fort Myers Beach with his wife Brenda, who had an opportunity to transfer with her job for an insurance company. Atterholt has families ties to the town. His uncle is Jim Steele, the former interim town manager who served as campaign treasurer for Atterholt. Steele also served as controller for the city of Indianapolis.

The Atterholts have owned a condominium on the beach at Bermuda Dunes, across from Santini Plaza, for a decade. Atterholt has maintained a consulting business since leaving Indiana.

Time with the future Vice President

Atterholt said it took about a month's courtship before Governor Mike Pence hired him as his chief of staff. "I did not apply for the job. He wanted me to come over."

He described Pence as a "very special person." Unlike some politicians, Atterholt said Pence's public persona didn't differ privately though he was more energetic in private. "He was very kind to the staff."

Atterholt said Pence displayed a "great self-deprecating sense of humor."

As chief of staff, Atterholt helped the governor oversee the state's agencies and approximately 28,000 state employees. When those agency heads wanted the governor's attention, Atterholt's job was to decide how to involve Pence. He considered himself the "mediator."

His job also involved screening applicants for jobs in the administration. There were 18-hour days and when Pence was off campaigning with Trump, Atterholt would take the meetings that Pence would have normally been on. "It was probably the most challenging job of my life," Atterholt said.

Running for town council

"Quite an adventure" is how Atterholt described his foray into the race for Fort Myers Beach Council. "It was almost a full-time effort," he said. "We knocked on almost every door." He handed out more than 2,000 combs while receiving 1,439 votes the most among the candidates.

"I learned a lot about the island, the different neighborhoods," Atterholt said. "It was a great way to understand the issues."

Atterholt enters town politics at a sensitive time. He said the shutting down of access to the beach during the coronavirus pandemic has been "devastating" to businesses. He believes that the COVID-19 cases "are starting to level off. I think a public health argument could be made where we could open up the beach for a couple of hours (each day)," he said.

Atterholt thinks that opening the beach to walkers could boost their immunity and provide a health benefit. In addition, he said that people who usually exercise on the beach are now being forced onto narrow and crowded streets. He is concerned about the 90-day ban on commercial lodging, which he said puts the town "out of sync" with surrounding communities.

The council will discuss those issues at a special meeting on Monday. In an early sign of Atterholt's role on the board, he guided the board to a middle ground in setting the meeting.

Another controversial issue Atterholt will be tackling is the proposed 298-foot long dune walkover adjacent to the Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area that has been pushed by the owners of two limited liability companies. The previous town councils have been fighting the disturbance of the area for years in court. Atterholt voted to approve the walkover on the Local Planning Agency though he said during the campaign that he wanted to protect the critical wildlife area and may be willing to compromise if he believes the landowners have a case regarding their threat to challenge the status of the critical wildlife area.

"I am very sensitive to the vulnerability of the critical wildlife area being weakened from this litigation," he said. He wants to discuss with town counsel the litigation risks.

After all of his experience in politics, Atterholt said he has grown "less partisan" politically though he says "I am still conservative."

He has learned that "if you can get along with people no matter their perspective, that's half the battle."



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