TALLAHASSEE — For the third time since taking office, Gov. Rick Scott has a new chief of staff to help shape his agenda, steer him through political minefields and bolster his shaky standing with Floridians.
Adam Hollingsworth, 43, is a battle-tested former chief of staff to a Jacksonville mayor, a communications specialist and former executive at CSX Corp. who already has faced several tough tests since taking over July 6.
Embarrassing news reports over school grades, the lieutenant governor and a botched open government website threatened to deepen the governor’s already-low approval ratings. In each instance, Hollingsworth worked behind the scenes to contain the damage by reversing course, with Scott’s consent.
“He brings a clarity of purpose,” said former Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton, who hired Hollingsworth and promoted him to chief of staff. “Someone has got to be the bad guy. He’s not afraid to make the hard calls.”
Deeply rooted in Jacksonville business and political circles, Hollingsworth has worked for two Democratic members of Congress and as a lobbyist in Tallahassee, developing a reputation for openness, tenacity and steadiness under pressure.
“The guiding principle is, if a mistake is made, admit it, fix it and move on,” Hollingsworth said, adding that “it is less about political science than the rightness of the approach.”
• A week after Hollingsworth started his new job, school districts raised doubts about a new grading formula for the second time in months. Hollingsworth intervened, the Department of Education was forced to issue new grades for 213 schools and last week, Commissioner of Education Gerard Robinson resigned, citing family reasons.
• To quell a firestorm Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll ignited after offending gay rights activists when a disgruntled ex-staffer said she caught Carroll in her office in a sexually compromising position with a female aide, Hollingsworth reached out to friends and colleagues of the lieutenant governor. They were asked to console her and to ask her not to make any more statements. The state attorney who’s prosecuting the former staffer, Carletha Cole, then asked for a gag order in the case and Carroll issued a lengthy apology to the gay community.
• After the Times/Herald confronted Scott’s press office about its practice of posting only positive mail on Scott’s open government website Sunburst, Hollingsworth had the governor’s office post all its emails. Within days, the site began streaming emails both positive and negative.
“While the things that have landed in his lap were not of his creation, the way he managed out of those serious matters gives insight into how effective he is at this job,’’ said Susie Wiles, who served as Scott’s campaign manager and who has worked with Hollingsworth for 20 years. “The place did not melt down.”
Hollingsworth, who calls himself a “conduit” for Scott, emphasizes that the handling of all three issues was consistent with the his boss’ “guidance, his values and his philosophy.”
While he admits he has a tendency to “acknowledge mistakes or errors even more quickly than other professionals might,’’ he also recognizes that his own missteps have often set him up for the mea culpas.
“He’s not a scaredy-cat but a guy who will come right at you,’’ said James Harold Thompson, a mentor to Hollingsworth for nearly two decades. “And in the political world, that works better than being two-faced.”
Hollingsworth was one of the “Jacksonville 11” — city officials who accepted tickets to Jaguars’ football games and other freebies. But the state Commission on Ethics ruled that no penalties should be imposed because city gift laws were confusing.
In the aftermath of Tropical Storm Fay in 2008, while serving as Peyton’s chief of staff, Hollingsworth got calls from his former boss, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown and state Rep. Denise Lee worried about flooding in their homes. Hollingsworth obliged them by dispatching city staff to their homes with sandbags, which Peyton called a mistake.
When neighbors complained they didn’t get the same help, Hollingsworth took the blame for not following city emergency protocols and personally paid for the cost of assisting Lee.
Hollingsworth replaces Steve MacNamara, who left abruptly and prematurely in May after a series of Times/Herald stories revealed that he had used his office to help steer contracts to friends, direct hiring at agencies and tarnished the governor’s image as a Tallahassee outsider.
Hollingsworth, meanwhile, blends the earnestness of a Boy Scout with the political savvy of a corporate lobbyist.
He has set up shop in a small Capitol office adjacent to Scott’s, the same place where former governors Jeb Bush and Lawton Chiles liked to work. The larger office in the governor’s suite, which had been expanded by MacNamara, has been given to Scott’ job-creation czar, Gray Swoope.
Comparisons between Hollingsworth and MacNamara are inevitable.
“He doesn’t strive to be colorful,” said lobbyist J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich, an outspoken former chief of staff for Gov. Bob Martinez. “It’s always a benefit to the governor that he not be overshadowed by his chief of staff.”
MacNamara was a sometimes volatile Capitol insider who replaced Mike Prendergast, an opaque career Army officer who was shifted to a low-key job overseeing veterans’ programs.
As Scott’s chief of staff, Hollingsworth is paid $150,000 — less than the $162,000 he made in Jacksonville and much less than MacNamara’s $189,000 salary.
Hollingsworth met Scott two years ago through Wiles, a mutual friend, when the former health care executive and political neophyte began a long-shot campaign for governor. The campaign needed someone to hone Scott’s debating skills and prep him on issues before debates with Republican rival Bill McCollum.
Hollingsworth took an unpaid leave of absence from the mayor’s office and worked side-by-side with the governor in those early days, when he doubted Scott’s chances of success. For about four months work, the state GOP paid Hollingsworth $94,000.
When the primary ended, Hollingsworth became Scott’s liaison with the Republican Party, whose leaders were still smarting from the bruising by the outsider who bankrolled his way onto the ticket.
Before he took the job as the Scott’s chief of staff, Hollingsworth met with former chiefs of staff to study up on the terrain. Their common message, he said he has taken to heart: surround yourself with good people, don’t lose control of your calendar and make time for family.
Hollingsworth’s wife, Amy Carrier of Coral Gables, is a former GOP operative and former CSX executive. They have two children, Hugh Michael, 4, and Haley, 2. Friends say Hollingsworth embraces fatherhood and marriage with the same all-in work ethic he brings to his day job.
He started a blog, DadsOnDefense.com, that includes insights into being a new father.
He and his wife led a Sunday morning bible study at Chets Creek, a Baptist church in Jacksonville, for “nearly weds and newlyweds” that focuses on building an effective marriage through biblical principles, said the church’s pastor, Spike Hogan.
“He’s a man of high character,’’ Hogan said of Hollingsworth, who joined the church at the urging of his wife’s family and has “come in gangbusters” embracing the church’s contemporary approach.
He understands “the potential for corruption, greed and immorality in any seat of government,’’ Hogan said. “He will hold those people to a high standard” but “will not impose beliefs on others who choose not to agree with him.”
Hollingsworth’s political philosophy has undergone an evolution. He was originally a Democrat who learned the inner workings of politics on Capitol Hill — first as an aide to the late Rep. Charles Bennett of Jacksonville and later for Corrine Brown, an intense partisan. He became a Republican in 1992 because the party was “more consistent with my principles.”.
He now believes “we’ve gotten way too caught up in partisan politics in this country” and recalls fondly working on Capitol Hill at a time when members of both parties worked together. “That sort of relationship-driven governing is so much better than the partisanship we have today. I’m not as caught up in party as I am people.”
As Hollingsworth finds his footing, another school year is about to begin, a tropical storm is approaching hurricane strength, and Florida will soon be under an intense media microscope when it hosts the Republican National Convention. Any convention-related failures or election recount nightmares will inevitably reflect poorly on Scott, the elected leader of the state.
Hollingsworth wants Scott to spend time listening to people, celebrating success and showing how state government connects to people’s lives. He views public service as “honor-filled, humbling jobs of privilege” and, like Scott, is not dismayed by the governor’s low standing in the polls.
“The governor says that by doing the right things, the right things will happen, and I believe that too,” Hollingsworth said.
Times/Herald staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this report.