Florida Gov. Rick Scott will begin his second term Tuesday by striking a low-key, businesslike tone starkly different from the lavish celebration of four years ago that launched a rocky and mistake-prone first year in office.
Before he sets out a modest set of priorities in a speech on the steps of the Old Capitol, Scott will take the oath of office as the 46th leader of the nation’s now third most-populous state, with family members, friends, supporters and the Legislature in attendance.
Scott is expected to strike familiar if unexciting themes: the need to create jobs, nurture the economy and spend more money on schools. The inauguration also gives Scott a chance to shed his standoffish and technocratic image and reconnect with a citizenry that has never shown much affection for him.
In the audience will be two Republican governors who helped Scott win a second term: Chris Christie of New Jersey and Rick Perry of Texas, both with presidential ambitions and keenly aware of Florida’s swing-state status.
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Former Gov. Jeb Bush, who’s actively exploring a White House bid, will not attend, Scott’s office said. All six living former Florida governors have been invited, including Scott’s 2014 opponent, Charlie Crist.
Scott, 62, is the fifth Florida governor to be re-elected and the second Republican, along with Bush, since the advent of the two-term system in 1968. In the most expensive and mean-spirited governor’s race in Florida history, Scott received 48 percent of the vote to Crist’s 47 percent, making him the first Florida governor elected twice without getting a majority of votes.
That lack of an electoral mandate serves as a reminder of Scott’s unpopularity and threatens to undermine his agenda in 2015. He must deal with a new crop of Republican leaders in the Legislature and fend off talk of being a lame duck as others jockey to succeed him and Florida prepares for its vital role in the 2016 race for the White House.
“Any time you have a veto pen, you don’t have lame-duck status in my opinion,” said Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. “And this governor has really grown into the job over four years.”
Scott’s state has changed, too. Back in 2011, Florida faced a budget shortfall of nearly $4 billion. A recharged economy has generated a projected surplus of $1 billion, and Scott wants to raise school spending to record levels while pledging to spend billions more on environmental programs and transportation improvements.
“The big thing is, I want to have the highest per-pupil funding for K-12 education in the history of this state,” Scott told reporters recently. “And I want a billion-dollar tax cut over the next two years. We’re going to continue to make this a state where you want to live.”
Scott is more experienced than the stranger with a big checkbook and fervent tea party following who came into office four years ago. Guided by neophytes with few ties to Florida, Scott soon alienated Floridians with plans to slash school spending by 10 percent and cut public workers’ pensions while turning away billions in federal money for high-speed rail.
His popularity tumbled and has never fully recovered. But being re-elected gives him a second chance to make a first impression with Floridians eager to forget the relentlessly negative TV ad campaign that drove him to victory in November.
Forging a fresh identity with voters could be good politics, too: Scott may be interested in seeking the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Bill Nelson, whose current term expires in 2018, the same year Scott will be exiting the governor’s office.
Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor in the Reubin O’D. Askew School of Public Administration and Policy at Florida State University, said Scott has effectively improved the state’s jobs climate but he lacks the coherent vision of previous two-term governors. He predicted that Scott, who spent $86 million of his personal fortune on two campaigns, will not leave a historical imprint.
“He’ll be a footnote in Florida history,” deHaven-Smith said. “He’s sort of a caretaker. I see no legacy at all. It’s truly amazing to me that somebody would spend all that money to get the office and then do so little with it.”
Scott’s aloof, CEO-style of leadership has not changed in some ways. He ignored requests by news organizations for end-of-year interviews, has waged a legal fight over his past use of a private email account for public business, and has reshaped his staff with young advisers long on loyalty but short on governing, led by Melissa Sellers, 32, Scott’s fourth chief of staff in four years.
About a week before Christmas, Scott dismissed Commissioner Gerald Bailey of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, without any public explanation, casting a shadow on an agency that strives to be above backroom maneuvering.
“One of the aspects of his management style is plausible deniability,” said former Republican Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland. “It’s almost impossible to tie anything directly to him. That goes back to his days as CEO of a major hospital chain. His focus is, 'How do I make sure this doesn’t bite me in the butt?’ ”
Democrats say Scott’s emphasis on school spending is long overdue to make up for a downward slide during his first two years in office.
“He’s got to live up to what he said on education,” said Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. “It’s about time, because he cut it and then it never caught up with the growth factor.”
Joyner criticizes Scott for failing to follow through on his support for Medicaid expansion to provide health care to more than 1 million uninsured Floridians. She also faults Scott’s “obsession” with the quantity of jobs rather than their quality. Many of the jobs created under Scott have been service-industry positions with subpar wages and few benefits.
“Florida is still below the average in income for families,” Joyner said. “He needs to shift his emphasis to quality jobs.”
Despite Scott’s call for a modest inauguration with no glitzy late-night ball, big corporations and special interests have so far doled out nearly $800,000 to an inaugural fund. The leading contributors are the Florida Insurance Council, Associated Industries of Florida’s business PAC and Scott Holdings, a Boca Raton medical firm not related to the governor, which donated $100,000 each. Florida Crystals, a leading sugar grower, gave $90,000. Other donors include gambling casinos, race tracks, insurance and health care companies, Wal-Mart Stores, the Holland & Knight law firm and The Geo Group, a private prison operator.