Gov. Rick Scott turns to lobbyists to help push his agenda

When Rick Scott captured the Republican nomination for governor in 2010, he openly made fun of lobbyists backing his opponent for “crying in their cocktails.”

But as he seeks a second term and needs to raise tens of millions of dollars, Scott not only has made peace with lobbyists, but he is beckoning them to the Governor’s Mansion to help get his agenda through the Legislature.

For two evenings last week, at least two-dozen lobbyists were ushered into the mansion for private briefings, where Scott made an earnest pitch for his two top political priorities: a $2,500 pay raise for every teacher, which would cost $480 million, and a sales tax exemption for manufacturers’ equipment, estimated to result in a loss of revenue of $141 million.

“Certainly, the lobbying community, who represent interests in Tallahassee, are going to be talking to the Legislature,” said Adam Hollingsworth, Scott’s chief of staff. “We thought it was important for the lobbying community to know that while they’re focused on a myriad of interests, the governor is focused on two.”

Hollingsworth said the sessions with lobbyists are part of a continuing effort by the governor to improve the level of communication with various interests.

Some lobbyists said Scott asked for their advice, which, for anybody else, would cost a lot of money.

“He did more listening than talking,” said J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich, who declined to discuss what he told Scott. “He asked for our advice, and I would not be inclined to share what that was.”

The mansion briefings are another step in Scott’s evolution as a politician who arrived in Tallahassee as the outsider who shunned lobbyists, making them wait in the lobby as he met with their clients.

The gatherings also reflect a significant difference in how Scott’s inner circle views the political universe, from antagonism to cooperation, hoping to encourage people with influence to create a buzz about the Scott agenda. Scott’s Cabinet aide, Michael Sevi, and communications director, Melissa Sellers, also attended.

The guest list included some of the capital’s most experienced insiders and aides to former governors. Among them: Guy Spearman, John French, Ron Book, Brian Ballard, Stipanovich, James Harold Thompson, Paul Bradshaw, Steve Metz, Charlie Dudley, Dean Cannon, Mike Haridopolos, Steve Dial, Mercer Fearington, Travis Blanton and Steve Uhlfelder.

Many have had extensive experience in state government, and now have clients seeking access or favorable treatment from Scott’s office or the agencies under his control. Their clients include insurers, utilities, hospitals, sugar growers, cities, counties, race tracks, sports franchises and vendors competing for lucrative state contracts.

“It was very smart,” said Book, a South Florida lobbyist. “He’s figuring it out — the importance of listening to folks in general.”

Book, a former senior aide to Gov. Bob Graham, a Democrat, said most other governors held talks with lobbyists, whose perspective — in addition to their campaign money — is typically valued by political leaders.

But unlike Scott’s previous get-togethers with interest groups — teachers, a teachers union leader, superintendents and college presidents ­­— the sessions with lobbyists were not publicized and did not have to be, so they did not appear on Scott’s official agenda for Feb. 4-5.

Hollingsworth, who once hired lobbyists as an executive for CSX Corp., considers Thompson, a former Democratic House speaker, as a personal mentor. He said inviting lobbyists to the mansion was one element of a broader and deeper “engagement of all the folks who are impacted by the governor’s policy agenda,” and ensure that as many people as possible know exactly what Scott wants.

It was described to participants as a business-like discussion with no wining and dining, and soft drinks only.

“There wasn’t even a Saltine cracker served,” Hollingsworth said. “This is part of a very broad effort to have the governor share his message and his priorities and the rationale for them as broadly and as widely as possible.”

Tampa Bay Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.