The Florida governor’s race resembled a fable-like fairy-tale mash-up last week. The roles:
Charlie Crist, as Brer Rabbit.
Gov. Rick Scott, as the emperor and his new clothes.
Steve Halverson, the chair of the Florida Council of 100, as the archetypal fall-guy of a fool.
The three became part of the same campaign tale amid the business group’s annual spring meeting. Scott was scheduled to speak Thursday, followed by Crist a few hours later at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando.
But some close to Scott didn’t like the idea of the Democratic challenger and former governor speaking at the same event and in the same room as the governor.
That’s because Scott is treated like an emperor — not the stupid or incompetent leader found in The Emperor’s New Clothes, but the recipient of bad counsel that too often leaves him exposed. Some also play the role of yes-men court dignitaries who’ll say or do whatever they can in anticipation of the governor’s desires and moods.
Halverson, a Scott campaign contributor, decided Crist shouldn’t speak. He called and apologized to Crist.
“I made that decision in an effort to avoid any appearance of a political candidate forum,” he told the Miami Herald in a text message, denying that he was ordered to do so by Scott or the governor’s chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, Halverson’s friend and fellow Jacksonville resident.
But Halverson wouldn’t say whether he had been called before he pulled the plug on Crist’s speech. Some council members say Halverson was feeling pressure from some Scott supporters who felt the GOP-leaning group had been “disloyal” for its stances on education that failed to cheer the governor’s position.
Something happened, Crist and others point out. Crist, after all, was invited by the council, the agenda was printed and then, at the last moment, the council changed course. When Halverson informed council members of his decision, some objected.
“It’s so foolish. It’s bad for the council’s reputation. It’s bad for the governor,” one Republican council member lamented. “But it’s great for Charlie Crist.”
Crist couldn’t believe his luck. Halverson had just thrown him into the proverbial briar patch, the spot where Brer Rabbit tricked his captors into releasing him into his natural element.
Outgunned by Scott’s personal and campaign finances (he has purchased about $8.5 million in TV in the past two months), Crist can compete only by getting what’s known as “earned media” — news stories that, in length and impact, can be worth triple the value of a 30-second ad.
The story of being silenced is the definition of earned media. Crist’s speech, which would have been closed to the press, wouldn’t have registered a single news story if he had been allowed to give it.
Instead of addressing the echo-chamber council outside of the news media’s eye, Crist first attended Scott’s speech. Then he called a press conference in the hotel lobby.
“I’m a big boy. I can handle it. Apparently Rick Scott can’t,” Crist told reporters. “And I think that’s the reason that I was asked not to speak because I don’t think he wants to hear the vision that I have for Florida’s future.”
So Crist, in the briar patch of an impromptu TV press conference, got to say that Scott had no figurative clothes.
Later, in Tampa, WFLA-NBC 8 reporter Lauren Mayk asked Scott whether he had anything to do with the cancellation.
“Gosh. He was there this morning during my speech,” Scott smiled. “You’ll see a great change — a great difference between the two of us: Someone that talks a lot, somebody that gets things done.”
Mayk, later noting in her broadcast report that Scott didn’t answer her question at first, asked whether the governor knew about the cancellation, which the Miami Herald reported the night before.
“No,” Scott responded.
In key campaign and media markets — Orlando, Tampa, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach — news clips on the controversy aired, showing Crist on the attack and a defensive Scott denying he used a heavy hand.
That’s a media fail for Scott’s team. He was in Tampa to announce tourism numbers and showcase how the economy has turned around on his watch. Instead, the governor’s message was overshadowed by a controversy that played into Crist’s hands.
It’s not the first time Scott’s administration has appeared to throw its weight around and punish potential opponents.
Earlier this spring, two other people critical of Scott or the administration — a college professor and a wildlife photographer — looked as if they were being silenced because of their views. Those stories got written as well, not helping Scott in the least.
Scott supporters got a measure of revenge Saturday when the Crist campaign made the grave mistake of hosting a field office opening in Little Havana, where Republican protestors disrupted the Democrat by chanting “Shame on you!”
But the Council of 100 controversy paid far more dividends to Crist. He easily earned the equivalent of about $100,000 in free media on Thursday.
In contrast, Halverson has contributed $28,000 to Scott. Factor in his decision to block Crist from speaking, thereby giving the Democrat a platform he wouldn’t otherwise have had, and Halverson’s total contribution to the Scott campaign is a negative $72,000.
There’s a moral here for Team Scott: don’t throw Crist in the briar patch, unless you secretly want him to win.