Two years ago, Gov. Rick Scott chose this out-of-the-way town midway between Orlando and Ocala to cement his bond with the tea party and showcase his first state budget as proof of his conservative credentials.
Tuesday, Scott will deliver a very different message to lawmakers gathered in Tallahassee for the official start of the 2013 session of the Florida Legislature.
The reaction in Eustis this time is sure to be different, too.
The governor, who in 2011 proposed a 10 percent cut in education spending and matter-of-factly rejected more than $2 billion for a high-speed rail line, now wants the state budget to swell to $74 billion.
And Scott, who said the federal healthcare law “will be the biggest job-killer ever,” now endorses the massive expansion of Medicaid that the law allows.
In conservative Eustis, people can’t reconcile the two Rick Scotts.
“This is a betrayal to the patriot movement,” said Patricia Sullivan, the North Lake Tea Party president who invited Scott to Eustis two years ago. “Expanding government, and saying we’ll take care of the problem down the road, is unacceptable.”
Up the street, long-time pawn shop owner Rocky Harris, a retired sheriff’s deputy, shook his head and said: “Rick Scott would have a hard time getting elected dogcatcher around here.”
Even the chairman of Lake County’s Republican Party was lukewarm about Scott.
“Conservatives are concerned about the governor’s position on Medicaid,” Michael Levine said. “But we’re pro-Rick Scott until we say we aren’t.”
Sullivan, a home-school teacher, mother of four and candidate for Congress in 2010, persuaded Scott to come to Eustis two years ago, just weeks after he took the oath of office as Florida’s 45th governor.
After a tribute to Sarah Palin and the singing of God Bless the U.S.A. , Sullivan introduced a beaming Scott to loud applause, a moment frozen in a photo on her Facebook page. A TV-friendly banner on stage read: “Reducing Spending & Holding Government Accountable.”
Afterward, Sullivan admired Scott’s grace as he signed individual thank-you notes to all 35 volunteers.
That was then.
Now, Sullivan, who is also Lake County’s elected Republican state committeewoman, sees Scott’s support for Medicaid expansion producing a wave of disgust among activists. She is searching for someone else to run for governor, and hopes Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater will reconsider and challenge Scott in the Republican primary in 2014.
“People are expressing deep disgust and disillusionment,” she said as she sipped coffee at Olivia’s Coffeehouse. “They get so disgusted with politicians who say one thing and do another.”
Then and now
The quaint downtown has a welcoming feel with no parking meters to be found.
“When people come here, they always say two things,” said City Manager Paul Berg, who moved to Eustis from Illinois six years ago. “They say, ‘I didn’t know you were here,’ and then they say, ‘I really like it here.’ ”
When the North Lake Tea Party invited Scott to town on Feb. 7, 2011, Sullivan recruited a small army of people to set up more than 1,000 chairs and serve refreshments. Fliers listed “special guest” Scott and proclaimed: “Florida Tea Parties Unite to Celebrate the State!”
On the list of speakers was Jack Cassell, a local urologist, who once refused to treat patients who voted for Barack Obama and who spoke on “The Defeat of Obamacare.”
But the law would be upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, a factor Scott cited in his decision to support a three-year expansion of Medicaid subject to approval by the Florida Legislature.
“I’m afraid Gov. Scott just turned off a lot of people,” Cassell said. “He’s really dug himself a hole.”
Sullivan is a doer with a take-charge personality, and she uses social media and email to stay in close touch with her fellow tea party members.
The day before Scott declared support for Medicaid expansion, she sensed that it was coming. She sent email blasts to her allies throughout Florida, urging them to try to change Scott’s mind.
One email alert read: “The governor needs to hear from you right now! He needs to understand that this would be the final straw and a complete betrayal of the patriot movement and conservative base that supported him.”
Scott knows his support for Medicaid expansion has hurt him politically. At a dinner Sunday where he was honored by a Republican women’s group, he defended his decision, saying that his only other option was to recommend rejection of federal Medicaid money, some of which is paid by Florida taxpayers.
“That was my rationale. I know it doesn’t make everybody happy,” Scott said. “I think it’s the right decision for the state.”
Eustis-area Republicans still have one piece of unfinished business with Scott.
They have invited him to be the guest of honor at the Lake County GOP’s Lincoln Day Dinner next fall, the party’s biggest fund-raising event. Scott has not yet accepted, and party activists are thinking of rescinding their invitation.