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The Reinvention of Rick Scott

Rick Scott came into office as a political outsider set on bringing a conservative pro-growth agenda to Florida government. Florida added jobs, and the economy grew, but Rick Scott's poll numbers plummeted to near record lows. Rick Scott, the CEO, learned the old adage that it was "all about the economy" wasn't necessarily true when it came to practical governing. A poor understanding of political public relations, a lack of retail political experience, and an unpopular cut to education spending made it look like Rick Scott would be a one-term governor. But the almost-shy former CEO did an about-face, and Rick Scott, chief executive, began a political conversion into Rick Scott, man of the people. Has he re-invented himself in time to earn a second term?

LONGTIME FORT LAUDERDALE EDUCATION ACTIVIST MARY FERTIG had heard it all about Gov. Rick Scott. The governor was out to destroy public education. He was a puppet of the Tea Party and its anti-government agenda. He was insensitive to average Floridians. Fertig may have even seen the email blasts and the blog posts laughing at the governor, portraying him as an alien, his bald head gleaming from the Photoshopped picture. So Fertig had no idea what to expect when she met Gov. Rick Scott at Fort Lauderdale High earlier this year. Scott’s education policies and how they affect Fort Lauderdale High are naturally important to the 62-year-old Fertig. Five of her six children went to the Fort Lauderdale High, the third generation of her family to do so. A natural redhead with soft green eyes, she favors conservative Talbots business suits and little obvious makeup. Her voice is often so soft she appears to be sharing a secret. But Fertig’s understated appearance is deceptive. For three decades she has been one of Broward’s most outspoken and opinionated school activists, even once engineering a successful civil rights suit to get more money for heavily minority schools. So, naturally when Scott swept through Fort Lauderdale High on a short visit in January, Fertig was there. The governor was touring the school as part of a stepped-up effort to retool his image in the wake of continued lagging poll numbers. He wanted to explain how much progress he had made and how much he had accomplished to reform education. How there were more jobs, a better economy. His well-worn stump speech.

Fort Lauderdale resident Mary Fertig is a stalwart education activist. She is optimistic over Gov. Scott's education change, but only up to a point. Photo by Jason Nuttle.

Then the governor waded into a small knot of students. A rainbow of hoodies, T-shirts and faces crowded the tall, colorless Scott, whose only bit of flare was his trademark black calfskin custom cowboy boots embossed with the state seal. Leaning forward, the governor made small talk, answering questions from the curious teenagers. The new Rick Scott had appeared. Rick Scott reborn.

Stung badly by some of the lowest poll numbers in Tallahassee history, Scott is trying to reinvent himself as his re-election approaches. Like him or hate him, with as many as six public appearances a day, Floridians have to admit: He’s trying. 

Fertig came away from meeting Scott impressed, only up to a point. “I was surprised by how well he related to students,” she recalled. “But he still has to convince me.” 

After three years in office, Scott remains a work in progress as he continues to restyle himself to woo Floridians like Fertig. He has gained momentum. His poll numbers are up from the disastrous low six months after his election, when only 29 percent of the voters thought he was doing a good job. (Supporters are quick to note that Scott never reached the record low point for a governor. That dubious prize is held by Democrat “Walkin’” Lawton Chiles, who had a 22 percent favorability rating in 1992 in the wake of Hurricane Andrew. Chiles went on to beat Jeb Bush two years later and won the re-election.) It is a lesson not lost on the Democratic Party, intent on preventing Scott’s re-election. 

With the governor’s poll numbers creeping up, defeating Scott 2.0 next year no longer seems a sure bet. Mitch Ceasar, decades-long chair of the state’s largest Democratic county organization in Broward and former state party chair, reminds his activists, “It is never easy to beat an incumbent governor. Despite his low poll numbers, he’s no pushover. Scott has personal wealth and will have any money and power that comes with being governor. He has low poll numbers. I tell everybody that it is going to be difficult.” Democrats remember that Scott has already surprised them once, in 2010. 

There was nothing in Scott’s background that foretold he would be the governor of the nation’s fourth most populated state.

Richard Lynn “Rick” Scott, now 60, was almost totally unknown by Florida’s roughly 10 million voters when he decided to run for governor three years ago. He had never held political office. There was nothing in Scott’s background that foretold he would be the governor of the nation’s fourth populated state. 

Broward road builder and entrepreneur Ronald M. Bergeron says he can relate to Scott. Both started life dirt poor. Today Bergeron wears rodeo belt buckles the size of salad plates and drives in his own fleet of gold-plated Hummers, yet he started out five decades ago with $75 and a tractor. Scott, too, had it rough and lived in public housing as a child. Both men overcame their pasts to become fabulously wealthy. When the subject of Scott is broached, Bergeron becomes excited, his Florida cracker drawl reaching a little higher pitch. “He’s a rags-to-riches guy. He started with nothing,” Bergeron says. “He is really not a politician. He’s a businessman who has proven by his own history that he can create wealth and jobs and benefit everybody.” 

Far from his $9.2 million waterfront estate in Naples is where Scott’s story began. Raised in Kansas City and the second of five children, Scott’s father, Orba Scott, drove a city bus and then drove a truck. His mother, Esther Scott, was a clerk at J.C. Penney, among other jobs. The family had trouble making ends meet. 

He attended one year of community college and dropped out to join the U.S. Navy. It was in the Navy that Scott first showed signs of the entrepreneurial spirit. He was a radar technician on an antisubmarine frigate when the ship’s store stopped selling sodas. The governor told the Jacksonville Historic Naval Ship Association in 2011 that when the ship docked he would buy sodas on shore. He would then sell them to the crew for double the price after they embarked. “I made more money selling soft drinks on the ship then I did getting my pay,” which was $288 a month, he said at a Jacksonville news conference. 

Twenty-nine months in the Navy were enough for Scott. He left, took his GI benefits, and landed at University of MissouriKansas City. In between classes, he and a partner bought two dying doughnut stores, which he revived and generated enough money to put some extra in his pocket. 

He graduated from Southern Methodist University’s law school and by  35, had formed the Columbia Hospital Corporation. 

His relentless expansion in new markets, preaching the gospel of free market capitalism shook up the clunky hospital industry, just like he would rattle Florida politics years later. Critics said Scott  ruthlessly cut staff as he imposed tough profit targets. 

Scott’s decade at Columbia/HCA ended when the federal government uncovered a massive Medicare fraud. He was not charged with wrongdoing. The company he ran and some executives working for him ended up paying $1.7 billion in civil and criminal charges. He was dismissed by the board, got a golden parachute worth more than $300 million, and moved to Florida to become an entrepreneur. 

Then Barack Obama got elected and proposed his health care program. Obamacare prompted Scott to jump into a Florida blood sport more calculating and brutal than any corporate boardroom – politics. 

Scott formed an anti-Obamacare group in 2009. A year later, his last-minute April 2010 jump into the Republican gubernatorial race was greeted with a collective yawn. The Miami 
Herald gave it three paragraphs, noting that the party already had candidates who opposed Obamacare. 

Few realized Scott had already agreed to spend roughly $70 million from his personal fortune on the race. Few also realized the appeal of the Tallahassee outsider to those disenchanted Republicans lumped under the name Tea Party. 

Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott greets the congregation of the First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks in Largo, Fla. Photo by Edward Linsmier.

The political establishments were almost all backing former Attorney General Bill McCollum, a button-down Republican making his fourth run for statewide office. Scott spent $4.7 million in his first month as a candidate on television and radio ads, slightly more than McCollum raised in a year. McCollum was tagged as a “failed career politician.” The plan worked. Scott won the primary and used a similar strategy to brush aside the Democratic nominee Alex Sink in the general election.

There was a lesson in the election Scott didn’t immediately grasp. He won with the smallest margin by a gubernatorial candidate in decades – 48.9 percent in the general election. “He barely won against a lackluster campaign run by Alex Sink. He didn’t come in with a mandate to change the world,” Davie-based pollster and University of Florida political science teacher Jim Kane says. “Scott and the people around him gave far more credit to the Tea Party than they should have. He thought he had a base of support to radically change state government. It turned out to be wrong and a disaster for him.” 

His relentless  expansion in new markets, preaching the gospel of free market capitalism shook up the clunky hospital industry, just like he would rattle Florida politics 16 years later.

Gov. Scott spoke at the 29th annual NALEO (National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials) conference in Orlando, Fla. Photo by Edward Linsmier.

Scott quickly passed a kaleidoscope of pet Republican proposals to pare spending on environmental land purchases and ease land-use regulations, crack down on abortion, provide more school vouchers and privatize various state agencies. But it was slashing spending on education – he proposed cutting $3 billion over two years – that riled three out of four Floridians. Political professionals say Scott tackled too much at once without laying the political groundwork, and the governor had no one with Tallahassee experience to tell him he was taking the wrong path. 

As veteran Republican lobbyist and political tactician John McKager Stipanovich says, “They were a fresh pair of eyes – they just didn’t know what they were looking at.” 

Then came those first dreadful poll numbers in early 2011. “All politicians say they don’t look at polls, but all do,” University of South Florida political scientist and long-time state political commentator Susan MacManus says. Scott, a bottom-line businessman, understood the numbers quickly and what they meant. He shifted gears. 

He first shook up his staff, easing his chief policy adviser and his chief of staff. The new chief of staff was Steve MacNamara, an insider’s insider who had been chief of staff to both the House speaker and the Senate president. 

At the same time, Scott attempted to repair his relations with legislators, hosting legislative leaders at informal barbecues at the Governor’s Mansion. 

He revamped his media operations. Complaining he had been “handled” in the past, Scott opened up his news conferences, answering a wide range of questions on his policies. He started meeting with editorial boards for the first time. 

It was obvious that Scott’s image needed refurbishing. “He only cares about rich people. It’s nuts. The Republican Party represented by him have turned themselves over to a very narrow slice of the electorate,” says John Ross, president of the Highland Beach Democratic Club. 

Bergeron said too many like Ross misunderstand the governor. “He knows what it's like to be down and he feels for those who are down,” Bergeron says. “He believes he is doing what’s best for Florida and for Floridians and through his policies he will improve the life of every Floridian.” 

His new staff started to fashion public events for Scott to showcase his softer side and emphasize the progress his administration is making. To dispel any hint that Scott was a hardhearted multi-millionaire divorced from the problems of the public, his staff lifted an idea from another wealthy former governor, Bob Graham. Scott began a series of telegenic “workdays.” He toiled beside servers at a doughnut shop or next to the crew on a cruise ship. 

By 2013 there would be a statewide visit to schools like Fort Lauderdale High on a “listening tour” to hear ideas from parents, students and teachers. It was this tour, Scott says, that convinced the governor to put $1.2 billion back in education including giving teachers a raise. 

Scott also started announcing companies that had moved operations to Florida by appearing at dozens of work places around the state where hiring was taking place. It was part of an effort to show he had lived up to his campaign promise to add jobs, as memorialized by his campaign slogan, “Let’s Get To Work.” He seemed to suddenly be appearing on television and in newspapers with good news about more jobs everywhere in the state. He even appeared with bulked-up wrestling stars at the new Orlando training center for WWE to applaud 100 new jobs. “Florida has many media markets from The Keys to the Panhandle and he is touching them all,” MacManus notes. 

Justin Sayfie was the former media director and top advisor for Gov. Jeb Bush and publishes the award-winning political website Sayfie Review. He said Scott is smart to build a foundation of support for his persona. 

“Gov. Scott has gotten much more comfortable with the traditional-style political events than he was three years ago. He’s getting good at them. [During the spring] he gave a speech at Lincoln Day,” Sayfie says, referring to his address to Broward Republican fundraiser. “It’s probably the best speech I’ve ever seen him make. He connected.” 

He is clicking with the public more often now, say political observers. Essentially shy, three years after his election he is still learning wholesale politics. Learning how to make small talk from Sopchoppy to Sanibel. Learning how to smile and stand still for endless cell phone pictures. Learning how to shake hands and ask strangers for their vote. 

Scott takes his tie off more often now and sometimes even his jacket. From the Wausau Possum Festival to the Sun-Sentinel Editorial Board, he has a story to tell. He talks about how he is roughly halfway to his goal of 700,000 new jobs in Florida. He takes credit for saving the state pension. He says that he revived the state from doldrums of economic disaster and made public schools accountable. And now he wants four more years to finish remaking Florida. 

Scott last year explained his evolution to the Palm Beach Post. “That’s part of what I’m doing here. I get to tell people the story of working hard. I lived the American dream. I want that same dream for all Americans,” the governor says. 

“And it’s fun. I get up every day excited about what impact I can have on improving the lives of Floridians.”