Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Can Florida’s own Richard III defuse his realm’s anger?

If Richard III’s tattered reputation can be rehabilitated, surely there must be hope for Florida’s much besmirched Richard.

Of course, it has taken 528 years to refurbish the rep of Richard Plantagenet, king of England from 1483 to 1485. Our Richard, Richard Lynn Scott, facing reelection next year, needs a quicker fix.

William Shakespeare in his Richard III (It’s always the media’s fault, isn’t it?) so slimed poor Rick Plantagenet’s public image that it stuck with him for centuries. But after his bones were discovered in an ignominious grave in the British Midlands last year, under a parking lot, and positively identified last week, the most loathed of British monarchs has enjoyed a bit of rehab.

York and Leicester are even squabbling over the rights to the royal bones — quite a turn-around for a fellow best known for murdering two young princes and hijacking the throne.

A fair reading of his popularity at the time he was slain at the Battle of Bosworth might be measured by the fervor of his subjects as they mutilated his body, attached a harness to the remains and dragged his corpse through the countryside.

But what a comeback he’s making in 2013.

It’s tougher going for Rick Scott, Florida’s first elected Governor Richard (something of an oddity, given that we put an Ossian, Marcellus, Lawton and even a Napoleon in the governor’s mansion before he came along). But if one considers that Richard Call served two separate stints as territorial governor, who’s to say we can’t anoint Scott as our own defamed Richard the Third? His reputation may not have declined into the likes of a Shakespearean tragedy, but he has definitely sunk to the dregs of public esteem.

In December, a Quinnipiac University poll indicated only 36 percent of Floridians thought Gov. Scott was doing a good job. That’s down five points from a dismal showing in May. Worse, perhaps, 53 percent of his fellow Republicans wanted the party to field another candidate in the 2014 election.

His standing failed to improve in January, when a Public Policy Polling survey found 57 percent of the state’s voters disapproved of him. His approval rating in the PPP poll had fallen from 37 percent in November to 33 percent. Like Richard III, Scott seems in for whopping “ winter of our discontent.”

Scott seems to have mistaken the $70 million he spent in his 2010 campaign with political genius. Winning an election with less than 50 percent of the vote in an election with less than a 50 percent turnout ought not to be the stuff of great hubris. Ah, but as Shakespeare’s Rick lamented, “ What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by. Richard loves Richard; that is, I and I.

Rick, a political novice after all, mistook the noise generated by tea party crazies in an off-year election for something more substantial.

It wasn’t just that he whacked $5 billion out of the state budget, laid off thousands of state workers and made unseemly cuts to education, leaving Florida school teachers among the lowest-paid in the nation. It was that he did it which such glee, unveiling his budget two years ago before cheering tea party activists at Eustis and The Villages (a place in the news lately because locals think their electric meters are part of a United Nations takeover conspiracy.)

Well, Eustis is not exactly a barometer of overall Florida sentiment. Floridians may understand the need to pare budgets and reconfigure pensions and eliminate positions, but they don’t regard their kids’ teachers or state troopers or park rangers as enemies. Layoffs are not regarded as grand political accomplishments, to be celebrated before an angry mob.

Scott didn’t seem to grasp until the November election that he doesn’t live in the old Jim Crow bastions of Mississippi or Alabama or South Carolina, where mean talk means votes. Florida’s votes, despite efforts to tamp down Democrat turnout, went to Obama, while tea party darling U.S. Rep. Allen West was tossed out of Congress.

We’re not in Eustis anymore, Toto (that’s my line, not Shakespeare’s). Governors, in a state like Florida, got to govern the whole damn shebang. Our King Richard seems to have figured this out. Scott has finally endorsed rolling back the so-called “voter reforms” that led to hours-long waits at urban polls.

And Scott’s proposed budget suggests a $1.2 billion increase in public school funding, including $480 million to provide $2,500 annual raises for those once-disparaged teachers. He’s bumping up the money for higher education, earmarking $75 million for the Florida Forever land-buying program and budgeting $60 million toward Everglades restoration. None of these line items are much palatable to the tea party. But he’s not running for the post of tea party martyr.

There are mean cuts in his budget, to be sure — 3,647 state jobs would be eliminated. State workers are looking at their seventh straight year without a raise. Scott shorts both mental health and substance-abuse-prevention programs. But at least he’s not couching these miseries as political triumphs. “ No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity,” as that other Richard said. Of course, he said that not long before he was clubbed and stabbed to death by an army of his unhappy constituents.

The rehabilitation of Rick Scott still seems a formidable task, though his handlers have something that poor Richard III’s champions lacked in their centuries-long rehab efforts — a $100 million campaign war chest.

But his tea party allies must be feeling much betrayed by his sudden lurch toward political moderation. And his enemies, inside the party and out, will be out to further sully his reputation before next year’s primaries.

As Richard III complained, “ And every tongue brings in a several tale, And every tale condemns me for a villain.”