Two years into Gov. Rick Scott’s term, and there’s room for improvement

Rick Scott casts himself as a problem solver, but after two years as governor of Florida, his biggest challenge remains unsolved: Himself.

Midway through a four-year term, a time when governors traditionally take stock of their highs and lows, Scott remains a polarizing figure, a leader who’s still awkwardly learning the ropes.

Once the toast of the tea party, Scott now must work to expand his political base as he seeks a new term in 2014.

Slow to grasp the state’s shifting political dynamics, he has made course corrections on issues such as immigration, education, healthcare and early voting.

Sued repeatedly over his policies, Scott has been cast by Democrats as a coldhearted, payroll-slashing “Pink Slip Rick,” ridiculed on cable TV for insulting the king of Spain and parodied for pushing drug-testing of state workers. The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi once tried to goad Scott into giving a urine sample on TV.

“You only get one chance to make a first impression,” said Republican strategist-lobbyist J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich.

“When you get on the wrong side of the Jon Stewarts of the world, it’s a long way back. People formed an opinion early and haven’t seen a reason to change it.”

But signs of improvement under Scott are evident. Florida’s unemployment rate has dropped three percentage points with an infusion of new jobs, state debt is at its lowest level in decades, population growth has recovered and the revenue outlook is brightening after years of multibillion-dollar shortfalls.

“We’re heading in the right direction,” Scott said in a year-end interview with the Herald/Times. “We’ve just got to keep it up every day.”

Some positives

Scott has pushed for more transparency in government, become more accessible and reshuffled his staff. Last week, for the first time, the Republican governor held “office hours,” appearing in rustic Wauchula, in an effort to connect with real people.

But polls show he remains unpopular with no hint of improvement, a red flag that the public’s negative view is unyielding. If Scott is going to improve his standing with Floridians, it’s now or never.

Back in August of 2010, candidate Rick Scott stood on stage at a St. Augustine park as the brilliant sun reflected off his shiny pate.

“You are changing the country!” Scott told thousands of tea party activists. “The establishment does not control our elections any longer.”

In his stump speech, Scott cast government as a job-killer, all of it the work of President Barack Obama.

“Everything Obama is doing is killing our jobs,” Scott told the cheering crowd.

Scott, who built Columbia/HCA into the nation’s largest for-profit hospital chain, defeated the GOP establishment that shunned him. Spending more than $73 million of his fortune, he dominated the airwaves with a disciplined message of 700,000 new jobs over seven years.

It worked against two uninspiring rivals — Bill McCollum in the Republican primary and Democrat Alex Sink in November — in a year when Obama’s popularity in Florida was at an all-time low.

“In business, that’s what you call a hostile takeover,” said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, a Scott admirer.

But it was not without a cost. McCollum’s and Sink’s hard-hitting TV ads, emphasizing record Medicare fraud fines against Scott’s company, left a mark, portraying Scott as a crook who couldn’t be trusted.

Scott won by 60,000 votes in November, in one of the closest governor’s races in Florida history.

He got less than 50 percent of the vote in an election in which turnout was below 50 percent, yet he acted as if he had a powerful mandate.

He didn’t, and people soon decided they did not like him all that much.

In May 2011, the first of seven Scott-era Quinnipiac University polls showed that just 29 percent of Florida voters approved of Scott’s handling of his job while 57 percent disapproved. Those numbers have improved, but a poll conducted last month showed a majority still disliked him.

“He never had a honeymoon,” said Stipanovich, a top advisor to former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez. “Nobody took him to the dance.”

As for his low poll numbers, Scott said he’s doing what he promised to do, including making some tough decisions. “We’re doing the things that are right,” Scott said. “You work your tail off, and eventually you turn things around, and all of a sudden you’re an overnight success.”

Having won as an outsider, Scott forged a team of outsiders who shared his conservative outlook and veered further to the right.

He signed his first budget at a Baptist church in Eustis with tea party activists and cut $1.3 billion from public schools, a one-year record.

The next year, in the first of a series of course corrections, Scott demanded $1 billion more for schools. This year, he’ll seek more: After a statewide tour of schools, he wants to issue $250 debit cards to teachers, so they don’t have to buy supplies for students.

“My agenda is, I like teachers,” Scott said, seated behind a big, unadorned desk in his Capitol office. “I want them to be paid fairly. I want them to feel respected.”

A pox on policies

In the latest Quinnipiac poll, the most troublesome news for Scott is that voters are not just lukewarm toward him personally. They oppose his policies, too.

By a margin of 66 percent to 26 percent, voters opposed Scott’s plan to offer $10,000 degrees to students in fields targeted to higher-paying jobs. By a margin of 71 percent to 7 percent, they opposed a Board of Education plan to set race-based education goals for students.

As governor, Scott has spent time recalibrating his positions.

He vowed as a candidate to bring an Arizona-style anti-immigration law to Florida and an E-Verify program designed to catch businesses that hire illegal immigrants. But he quickly backed away.

After Scott signed a law reducing early voting from 14 days to eight, the League of Women voters sued over changes that made it harder to register new voters, and won.

This past election, Scott was pilloried by Democrats, who accused him of trying to suppress the vote when he refused to extend early voting. Scott watched as people in Miami-Dade County waited up to seven hours to vote.

Scott’s most likely challengers for reelection in 2014 are Sink, the former chief financial officer and his 2010 rival, and former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-Independent-turned Democrat.

Despite Scott’s weaknesses, his deep pockets present a daunting challenge for Democrats.

“Listen, you can’t underestimate any guy who’s going to spend $100 million to get reelected,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who has had preliminary talks with Crist. “A landslide win in 2014 is going to be by one or two points.”

Scott, 60, became unimaginably rich as a hospital executive.

As governor, he takes no salary, travels in his personal jet on his own dime and visits his oceanfront estate in Naples whenever he can.

Scott’s wealth obscures his humble background. Many of his constituents are unaware of his family’s early struggles.

The son of a truck driver and a JCPenney clerk, Scott grew up poor and lived for a time in public housing in Illinois. He held all sorts of jobs as a kid, from peddling papers to cleaning phone booths, before saving enough money to buy two doughnut shops in Kansas City, Mo.

He was very close to his mother, Esther, who died in November. Recalling her life, Scott began to cry.

“I think about my mom. Here’s a lady that almost put me up for adoption when I was born,” Scott said as his eyes filled with tears. “She was going through a divorce. She never had money. She was scared to death to put food on the table.”

Those experiences, Scott said, are why he’s adamantly opposed to any tuition increases at Florida colleges and universities.

“Somebody will say, ‘It’s only 8 percent more. It’s only 150 bucks.’ Do you know how much money that is to people? People don’t have 150 bucks,” Scott said.

‘He gets it done’

With the Governor’s Mansion elegantly decorated for the holidays, the governor and first lady Ann Scott hosted a four-course dinner for three dozen community leaders, including a college president, sheriff, school superintendent and mayor.

At the Nov. 19 event, the governor was more relaxed and jovial than he appears in public, telling guests the joy of seeing fourth-graders on mansion tours, that three presidents have stayed overnight and that the mansion’s most famous guest was actor John Travolta.

As salad was served, he boasted of the mansion chef’s cooking skills, called him a “chick magnet,” and urged more people to run for office, as long as they don’t run for governor.

“This is the best job you can imagine,” Scott said.

Republican activist Cindy Graves of Jacksonville, president of the Florida Federation of Republican Women, said Scott is an uncelebrated hero.

“He tends to get the blunt end of every stick,” Graves said. “But he’s calm, he gets it done and he doesn’t whine. Is that sexy? Probably not.”

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or 850-224-7263.