Gov. Rick Scott has started losing allies and credibility midway through the first month of his second term.
It all erupted in one politically disastrous week in which Scott:
1. Was publicly accused of being a liar by the former chief of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. He says the governor’s campaign last year inappropriately tried to meddle in department business and investigations for political reasons.
2. Estranged fellow statewide elected Republicans in the Florida Cabinet, who began to distance themselves from Scott amid the controversy.
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3. Was embarrassed by rank-and-file Republican Party of Florida members who bucked him by refusing to vote in his handpicked party chair. By weighing in on the race — and using arm-twisting tactics — Scott broke his pledge to remain neutral. After RPOF members defied Scott and chose a different party chair, a bizarre scene unfolded at the GOP’s Tallahassee headquarters, where Senate Republican staffers moved out and took $800,000 with them.
If no amends are made, the party chaos and Scott’s isolation portends a rough legislative session and an intra-party knife fight ahead of the 2016 presidential race.
Some Republicans grumble that Scott is trying to use party fundraising to make himself a power player who could blunt the advantages that former Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio enjoy in Florida as part of their potential bids for the White House. Scott allies deny it.
Scott’s troubles started Tuesday when the governor and Cabinet were set to choose a new FDLE commissioner because the previous chief, Gerald Bailey, unexpectedly quit of his own accord. At least, that’s what Scott’s team was saying and what Scott was suggesting publicly.
“He resigned,” Scott said Tuesday.
But that wasn’t true, Bailey and others say.
“If he said I resigned voluntarily, that is a lie,” Bailey told the Herald/Times capital bureau, which broke the story. “If he said that, he’s being totally untruthful.”
The governor’s office later issued a statement that admitted Scott wanted someone new all along. It went on to attack Bailey as “petty.”
Bailey’s comments landed like a bomb that fragged Attorney General Pam Bondi, Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. Their allies and staffers say the Cabinet members all thought Bailey, who was expected to retire this year, willingly quit.
Turns out, Bailey said, the governor’s counsel told him to resign immediately last month and clear out his desk — or risk being publicly humiliated by being fired because he lost the confidence of the Cabinet.
But that claim from Scott’s administration wasn’t true, either.
The Cabinet members all deeply admired Bailey, a career law-enforcement official brought in during Jeb Bush’s administration to help FDLE recover from a political scandal. So on Tuesday Cabinet members unexpectedly had to duck reporters’ questions about what they knew and when they knew it at FDLE. They were essentially playing defense for something they found offensive.
There was already some lingering ill-will among Republican backers of the Cabinet members who, they say, were disrespected by the governor’s campaign team during the last election.
“Trust me: They’re livid,” one top Republican familiar with the Cabinet’s thinking said. “Rick is running out of friends — if he ever had them. But it’s not like he cares anyway.”
The news got worse over the weekend, when the Herald/Times reported that Bailey said Scott’s former chief of staff tried to get FDLE to falsely accuse an Orlando-area court clerk in a prisoner-escape scandal to deflect blame from Scott’s Department of Corrections. Bailey also said the administration wanted to use the agency to help hire political allies for state jobs and to intercede in a federal investigation of a prospective Scott appointee.
Scott’s office denies the claims and has gone on to call Bailey “petty.”
At the same time Bailey was accusing Scott of not telling the truth, Republican Party of Florida members assembled in Orlando to watch the governor breaking his word by overtly backing the reelection of RPOF Chair Leslie Dougher.
Months before, Scott said he wouldn’t get involved in this race.
Scott made the promise to secure her May special election to fill out the term of her predecessor who left the job to run for mayor. Scott said he needed his chair to closely coordinate with his tough bid for reelection, which he won by just 1.08 percentage points over former Gov. Charlie Crist. After November, he said, the RPOF could choose without him weighing in.
But that wasn’t true.
Emissaries of the governor tried to get state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia and others out of the race to ensure Dougher’s reelection. Scott even threatened not to raise money for the party during 2016 — a disaster for Republicans who generally need to win Florida to win the White House.
Republicans balked. Scott’s Republican Party has been watched with some concern by Florida GOP insiders who have called it “The Republican Party of Jindal” because a number of top-ranking Scott staffers and allies came from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s orbit, most notably Scott’s current chief of staff Melissa Sellers.
Scott also has an ongoing bromance with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and he’s very thankful to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who chaired the Republican Governors Association and steered $18.5 million to Scott’s reelection. All might run for president.
A large number of RPOF members are Bush and Rubio supporters. Many don’t want the party helping non-Florida candidates. And the threat of Scott not raising money for the party was seen as poor form by some Republicans.
When asked whether Scott might take a less active role in fundraising for the party given the vote, Dougher told the Herald/Times: “I guess we’ll see, won’t we?”
In the end, the majority probably chose Ingoglia based on the merits and the fact that they liked him. Still, it looked like a rebuke of Scott, a sign he’s weak. No one can recall a governor losing a chair race at RPOF.
Amid the turmoil, Scott’s handpicked RPOF executive director, Juston Johnson, promptly quit. And the Florida Senate’s election staff, having already withdrawn money it previously raised through the party, packed up Saturday and left the George Bush Republican Center in Tallahassee.
The reason isn’t clear, but Senate and House election-staff rivalries have periodically flared up. Some worried that House leaders would now have more control over Senate campaigns. The situation could make for more conflict in the legislative session, where some top members already distrust Scott as well.
Ingoglia quickly responded with an edict demanding that no RPOF data, files or property be removed from the building. He restricted building access and limited payments to vendors.
“Failure to comply with these guidelines will result in immediate termination and possible litigation. Please govern yourselves accordingly,” Ingoglia wrote.
As the dysfunction mounted, Scott said nothing and made no moves to repair the party that he basically leads.
“Leslie did a great job as chairwoman,” he said in a terse written statement. “We had a successful election and that’s why I voted for her. The delegates made another choice, which is their prerogative.”
The other Cabinet members — Bondi, Atwater and Putnam — all congratulated the new chairman on Twitter. Scott was silent.
The fact that Scott can’t bear to say something nice on Twitter about the chair of his new party indicates his hard feelings.
Sure, talk is cheap. But manners are free. And the absence of friendliness and credibility can be politically costly.