Gov. Rick Scott’s finance co-chair exits amid campaign turmoil

03/21/2014 6:20 PM

03/21/2014 7:00 PM

In a campaign shakeup, Gov. Rick Scott’s top fundraiser — billionaire healthcare CEO Mike Fernandez — abruptly quit his post late Thursday after weeks of behind-the-scenes disagreements.

Fernandez said he was quitting to spend more time with his family and businesses. And he praised Scott’s campaign in a letter to the campaign’s leadership team.

“Together, we have helped the Governor raise more than $35 million. This has been an unprecedented effort, which is only matched by our shared commitment to reelect our Governor this November,” Fernandez’s letter said.

“I am proud of the team the Governor has put together, and I am confident that we are on course for victory,” he wrote in the letter, released by Scott’s campaign.

Despite the praise, Fernandez has been unhappy for weeks with the struggling campaign’s direction and and the attitude of some of its workers.

Fernandez began expressing his frustrations at least a month ago when he sent an email to top Scott allies and complained about two campaign aides who had joked around in a cartoon-style Mexican accent en route to a Mexican restaurant in Fernandez’s home town of Coral Gables.

Fernandez, who is Cuban, wouldn’t comment about the email.

Fernandez, though, said his real issues concerned the campaign’s direction and not the governor. But he acknowledged his own faults, noting he never ran a campaign.

“My job is to make an organization work better,” Fernandez told The Miami Herald. “I’ve never found an organization or a relationship that cannot be improved upon.”

“To be fair to those people who I have criticized, I probably have overstepped my — or maybe their —comfort zone. Because I’m used to being the CEO,” he said. “Here I’m not the CEO. I’m a senior vice president at the most.”

Fernandez will continue to actively support Republicans and Scott. On Monday, he plans to host a Republican Governor’s Association fundraiser headlined by Scott and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

In the 2012 campaign cycle, Fernandez raised and helped contribute as much as $8 million to elect Romney — about $2 million less than he annually contributes to charity.

Fernandez said he’ll do everything he can to help Scott beat the Democrats’ frontrunner, Charlie Crist.

Fernandez said he was drawn to Scott because he supports his pro-business vision of government and because the two share a common bond: a rags-to-riches story.

A penniless immigrant from Cuba when he was 12, the 61-year-old Fernandez is the chairman of Coral Gables-based MBF Healthcare Partners. It controls dozens of companies from the Navarro Pharmacy chain to a partnership with basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who’s the face of Simply Healthcare Plans insurance company.

In November, Fernandez was officially named Scott’s campaign finance co-chair. He contributed $1 million in a single check at the time.

Opponents questioned Fernandez’s motives, noting he has large health contracts with the state. But Fernandez counters that he has had state contracts since 1981, and had them when Crist was a Republican governor and Senate candidate. He had contributed to Crist when he was a Republican.

Fernandez’s departure is the latest upheaval in Scott’s campaign.

In November, the governor’s office chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, helped minimize the role of Scott’s once-top political advisor, pollster Tony Fabrizio, who has been credited with being the driving force behind Scott’s improbable 2010 win.

Republicans say Hollingsworth has also had a tense relationship with Fernandez’s possible successor: former U.S. Ambassador to the Bahamas, John Rood.

With Fernandez’s help, Scott’s campaign and the Republican Party of Florida have begun beefing up staff and raising huge sums — as much as $45 million — to take on Crist.

But Scott’s poll numbers have by and large been stagnant for months. Most surveys show he has a negative job approval rating and trails Crist by anywhere from 4 to 10 percentage points.

“Charlie is not an option,” Fernandez said. “Rick is the doer. Charlie doesn’t have an opinion that is his own. He has a record of not accomplishing anything substantial. Scott has created jobs. Charlie did not.”

As for Scott’s campaign, Fernandez said it’s best he takes a step back.

“That team wants the governor to win and they take, sometimes, my criticism as an outsider looking into the political world,” Fernandez said. “My real intent is to make sure that the machine works better. That the candidate gets better results. That the communication is improved.”

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