Rick Scott ran for governor as a nonpolitician and self-styled political outsider. He threatened to make the Tallahassee establishment pols quake in their boots and weep in their drinks. There would be a new sheriff in town.
Well, flash forward to summer 2013, and the new sheriff has become very much like the old sheriff. Rick Scott has become the thing he despised: a politician. Too much so, in my view. He spends less time governing than he does campaigning. And he’s campaigning all the time. The governor who rarely turned up in South Florida after his election is now here — and around the state — all the time for a nonstop parade of well-orchestrated photo ops, awards ceremonies and bill signings.
Take the elaborate production in North Miami that accompanied the signing of the no-texting-while-driving bill, about which Scott was largely noncommittal during the legislative session. But the stage at Alonzo and Tracy Mourning High could barely hold the several dozen invitees. Scott arrived and patiently shook every hand in sight before thanking everyone present he could name. Quite a change from the awkward and ill-at-ease neophyte who would zip into such events, make a few brief, uninspired remarks and run out before it was over without so much as a buh-bye.
Now, Scott comes early and stays late. In North Miami the once media-shy governor waded right into the media gaggle for a few minutes and remained afterwards for photographs with all comers. The state photographer snapped pictures of Scott and whoever was in the vicinity and handed out business cards so they could be sent a copy. I’m sure they’ll be autographed, too. The governor is even sending little hand-written notes to — of all people! — reporters. I’ve received a couple. Nice, but not necessary.
We’re witnessing the roll-out of a repackaged, highly coached and media-friendly Rick Scott. The problem is that his metamorphosis feels forced, unnatural, Pavlovian. It’s like Scott had a facelift, lipo and got a personal shopper, but still thinks of himself as the nerdy guy he was before the makeover. Scott’s transformation is cosmetic, not organic. He was never a natural at the political banter and glad-handing at which some politicians — say, Charlie Crist — excel. But his rough-around-the-edges political persona at least had the feel of authenticity. That’s not a quality I could ascribe to the new, but not necessarily improved, Rick Scott.
What hasn’t changed is his laser-like focus on a few key themes: Job creation, making Florida the No. 1 place to do business, keeping the cost of living low for families and providing good K-12 schools and affordable higher ed. Worthy goals all, to be sure. Scott keeps repeating that mantra at every opportunity. He repeated them in a letter he recently sent to a friend who had renewed her real-estate license. The letter, on the governor’s letterhead and which cost 38 cents to mail, is one of many thinly disguised campaign ploys.
Every incumbent uses his office in small ways to advance his reelection. Scott is using his office shamelessly to advance his chances for a second term. I receive on average 20 emails a day from the governor’s press office announcing everything from the appointment of new members to state boards and commissions to copies of favorable articles and videos of his appearances. His office has created a Twitter account called “What’s Working” that praises whatever Scott does. Currently, he’s taking several victory laps around the state signing various bills, most of which were passed without his input or support. Scott is practicing the kind of political self-aggrandizement — using the imprimatur and power of the governor’s office — that is the very kind of thing he promised to end.
The governor has mounted a crafty, but thus far largely unpersuasive, PR campaign to change voters’ perceptions. Will it work? We won’t know for another 17 months. For a long time he wasn’t enough of a politician. Now he’s too much of one. Perhaps Scott will find the right balance between now and November 2014.
For the moment, his makeover strategy is too transparent, too studied and, yes, too phony. I suspect it’s going to get old fast.