Rick Scott rewrote the playbook of Florida politics, not once but twice, as a candidate and governor, in ways that will endure long after he leaves Tallahassee.
As Scott begins his eighth and final year as Florida’s 45th governor, he’s considering a bid for the U.S. Senate against three-term Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. If he were to win, it would extend an improbable winning streak for a multi-millionaire who as recently as 2010 was a political novice and unknown.
But one cornerstone of his legacy is secure: He’s the tireless and nerdy CEO with a singular focus on jobs that bordered on an obsession while he was governor, who’ll be remembered chiefly for leading his state out of the Great Recession.
The rest of Scott’s legacy is less glowing.
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He relegated Florida motorists and tourists to decades of gridlock by killing a high-speed rail system that would have linked Tampa to Orlando, and later to Miami.
His reversal on Medicaid expansion denied up to a million low-income Floridians access to affordable healthcare, left billions of federal dollars on the table and brought criticism from fellow Republicans that he was a flip-flopper.
Scott is the first governor who was sued successfully for violating state public records laws, including the failure to disclose emails involving public business sent from a private account, and was forced to spend $700,000 of taxpayers’ money to pay his opponents’ legal fees. He publicly apologized for mishandling the firing of a top state law enforcement official that cost taxpayers another $55,000 in legal fees to advocates for open government.
He has exercised the death penalty more than any governor in Florida history. More inmates have been put to death under his watch (26) than by any of his predecessors.
His hurricane moment
An enigma from the start, Scott has never been especially well-liked by Floridians, though his popularity rating improved in the fall after his highly visible leadership during Hurricane Irma, the worst natural disaster of his tenure.
Scott’s workaholic nature and take-charge response to the crisis made him a ubiquitous presence on TV for weeks. He guided the state through the largest mass evacuation in U.S. history, giving orders and reassuring guidance while wearing a Navy cap.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush, who dealt with four monster storms in a two-year period, said Scott deftly handled Irma.
“I was hunkered down in Miami, and he was all over the place,” Bush said. “He had the right balance between telling people this was important without scaring them.”
Before 2010, Florida had never seen a candidate like Rick Scott. With no real roots in his adopted state but with vast personal wealth, he rode a tea party wave to victory in 2010 as a job creator and has never wavered from that mission.
“He’ll be remembered as the governor who kept his promises,” said Steve MacNamara, a professor of communications at Florida State University and one of Scott’s six chiefs of staff in the past seven years.
“In 30 years, I’ve never seen a governor who’s more aggressive in bringing jobs to Florida,” said Kelly Smallridge, president of the economic development agency in Palm Beach County. “It sends such a positive message.”
In the Scott era, unemployment, taxpayer debt and crime declined statewide, all metrics that the “numbers governor” cited often as successes.
Not all positive
No governor in Florida history has relied so much on statistics, but numbers don’t tell the full story.
“He’ll be remembered for a job-centric outlook. The flip side is that other important issues were just tossed to the side,” said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, who cited environmental protection as one example.
Scott signed a repeal of Florida’s 1985 growth management laws, slashed money for the state’s water management districts and reduced oversight at the state Department of Environmental Protection, where fast-tracking government approvals for projects became a priority.
In the Scott era, success was defined by the number of new jobs created (a rolling monthly federal estimate) and the statewide unemployment rate.
Other benchmarks were not mentioned, such as the steady decline in average wages in Florida compared to the U.S. or the total number of long-term unemployed who, after a point in time, are no longer counted.
Rich Templin, a lobbyist for the Florida AFL-CIO, said Scott has shrewdly cropped the public’s picture of the economy to make things look better than they actually are.
“He’s done a good job of creating a veneer, and the next governor is going to find out just how thin that veneer really is,” Templin said.
Templin said Scott should also be remembered as the leader who reduced the amount and the duration of unemployment benefits, while creating a new electronic system of filing for benefits that was riddled with problems for years.
“Most of the problems haven’t been resolved. They’ve just been forgotten,” Templin said.
Many new jobs are low-wage positions with sparse benefits.
A clear sign of Scott’s selective use of economic statistics is that large swaths of rural Florida are in worse economic shape today than before Scott took office — another blemish on his legacy.
Under Scott, 36 of Florida’s 67 counties, most of them small and rural, are in worse economic shape than they were a decade ago, and the percentage of the population living in poverty is going up, according to thefloridascorecard.org, a website of the conservative Florida Chamber Foundation.
Less evident, but also a big part of Scott’s legacy, is that while he was counting all those new jobs, the size of the state budget ballooned from $70 billion to $82 billion — a jump of nearly 20 percent — even as the size of the state workforce shrank to about 112,000 full-time positions, 10,000 fewer than the year he took office.
At the same time, Scott consistently opposed across-the-board pay raises for state workers, so that their buying power diminished when inflation was taken into account.
Under Scott, working conditions for some employees got more dangerous and the safety net for the poor and the unemployed frayed.
Late in his tenure, as job turnover intensified in front-line state law enforcement jobs, Scott belatedly championed salary increases for Highway Patrol troopers, crime lab technicians and forestry firefighters.
No new taxes
On taxes, Scott’s support for permanent annual tax cuts has saved Floridians $1 billion by his estimate, but what that also means is that revenue will never again be there for future governors.
Before leaving office, he wants to make it harder for his successors to raise taxes and fees by requiring a two-thirds majority vote by the Legislature. The Constitution Revision Commission could make that a possibility by placing an amendment on the November ballot. Then it would be up to voters.
The last time the state raised taxes and fees was in 2009, to balance a recession budget.
For the past seven years, Scott has made governing a perpetual campaign — buying TV ads, paid for with high-dollar campaign contributions to the Let’s Get to Work fund he controlled, to promote his agenda and punish his enemies.
Scott is the first Florida governor with a permanent campaign fund during his entire time in office.
The Let’s Get to Work fund has raised and spent $57 million — most recently a $2 million ad buy after Hurricane Irma.
Guided by his pollsters and ad makers, the governor looked out for himself, beaming TV ads at the Legislature, while severely weakening the Republican Party as a fund-raising force.
“Scott has been more of a CEO governor than an activist governor,” said Steve Schale, a Democrat strategist. “He hasn’t really changed the office.”
Highly scripted and ill at ease in public, Scott’s style is starkly different from the preceding two-term governors: Democrats Reubin Askew (1971-79), Bob Graham (1979-87) and Lawton Chiles (1991-1998) and Republican Jeb Bush (1999-2007).
Bush was an impatient policy wonk determined to change the world who expanded the powers of the office and transformed public education in ways that are still hotly debated.
Chiles was a homespun “Cracker” who liked to go hunting and fishing, led a successful crusade for children’s health and made tobacco companies pay for their unhealthy sins.
Scott? He focused on job numbers rather than on running state agencies or making sweeping policy changes.
As a result, a Miami-Dade grand jury is investigating abuses in juvenile detention centers; a spate of violent deaths of state prison inmates led to at least seven criminal investigations; state prisons are “dangerously understaffed,” in the words of Scott’s corrections chief; social services continue to be strained and underfunded; and the state can’t come close to meeting its transportation needs without expanding tolls on highways.
Scott will depart as he arrived, a solitary and distant figure without a clearly defined personality in the minds of many of his constituents.
“People expect certain things from their politicians like smoothness and likability,” said former top aide MacNamara. “Rick didn’t have those.”
Breaking the mold
To get to the Governor’s Mansion from a hospital boardroom, Scott did a lot of things that had never been done before and might not be seen again.
He spent more than $70 million of his own money, ran as an outsider, flew in his own plane, kept his travel plans secret and regarded the mainstream news media as an unwelcome distraction.
“It’s always nice to be around my biggest supporters,” he said sarcastically as he addressed the annual Associated Press pre-session conference on Nov. 2.
Scott will be remembered as the governor who ditched the state aircraft, a campaign promise he could keep easily because he had the money to replace it with one of his own.
Serving at a time when newspapers were fighting for survival, Scott ignored newspaper editorial boards, a rite of passage for his predecessors.
He’s the first Florida governor to routinely decline to grant interviews to local reporters (a request for an interview for this article was ignored, and aides provided written answers to questions).
Asked to describe his legacy, Scott returned to familiar talking points.
“I have spent every day since taking office fighting to get Florida on the right track by turning around our economy,” his office said. “In the four years before I took office, Florida had lost more than 800,000 jobs, taxes were increased by more than $2 billion and the economy was in free fall. Over the past seven years we have worked relentlessly to turn around Florida’s economy.”
Scott’s improbable election in 2010 ensured the rewriting of something else: His life story.
Before 2010, he was known chiefly as the for-profit hospital executive whose company, Columbia/HCA, paid $1.7 billion in fines, the largest in history at the time, for defrauding the Medicare program.
Scott, 65, will be remembered more as only the second Republican, after Bush, who won back-to-back terms as governor of the nation’s third most populous state.
His narrow self-funded victories both were achieved with less than 50 percent of the vote.
“He’s the governor who led Florida’s economic recovery,” said Don Gaetz, a former Senate president from Niceville. “When he got into office, Florida was on its knees economically, and when he leaves, Florida will be ahead of most states in terms of economic progress.”
Tampa Bay Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @stevebousquet.
The Rick Scott record
These five issues define Rick Scott’s tenure as governor of Florida.
▪ Train: Rejected $2.4 billion in federal money for high-speed bullet train along the I-4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando weeks after taking office in 2011, angering fellow Republicans.
▪ Voting: Signed 2011 law that resulted in historically long lines at early voting sites in 2012 election and tried to remove suspected non-citizens from rolls before federal judge ruled it was illegal because it was too close to 2012 vote.
▪ Medicaid: Promised to “protect the uninsured” and backed expansion of Medicaid in 2013 after his mother died, but reversed course in 2015 when talks with the federal government over payments for hospital patient care collapsed.
▪ Irma: Directed largest mass evacuation in U.S. history before Hurricane Irma hit the Keys in September and deleted voice mail messages from Hollywood nursing home where 14 elderly residents overheated and died from no electricity.
▪ Opioids: Declared statewide public health emergency in 2017 and sought new laws and $50 million in state and federal money after record deaths from opioid abuse.
Source: Herald/Times research