State Politics

Gov. Rick Scott may reward campaign manager with chief of staff job

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

Melissa Sellers, 32, ran Gov. Rick Scott’s campaign.
Melissa Sellers, 32, ran Gov. Rick Scott’s campaign. Tampa Bay Times

One week after clinching a new term, Gov. Rick Scott shifted his focus to the future, promising more money for schools and more tax cuts and making plans to hire a new chief of staff.

Scott’s favorite for the most powerful post in his second administration appears to be Melissa Sellers, a native Texan who tightly ran his re-election campaign and whose loyalty seems to have won Scott’s trust.

“She did a very good job on the campaign,” Scott told reporters after a Cabinet meeting. Asked what Sellers’ next job will be, Scott said: “I don’t know.”

Sellers declined to comment on her future Wednesday.

Scott’s chief of staff for the past two-and-a-half years, Adam Hollingsworth, indicated some time ago that he wanted to return to private life after the election.

The governor’s chief of staff is the most powerful appointed job in state government — and one of its most grueling. Working out of a small office adjacent to the governor’s, the occupant acts with the governor’s authority in dealing with day-to-day operations of state agencies and must delicately balance relationships with the Legislature and lobbying corps.

With Scott, the job is especially influential because his governing style is to rely on a tight circle of advisers.

Sellers, 32, a University of Texas journalism graduate, is skilled at shaping Scott’s message of job creation, but she has little experience at governing. Despite her close ties to Scott, she’s not well-known among Tallahassee's political establishment.

Sellers was Scott’s communications director when he moved her to the campaign in January. Some of his supporters questioned the move at the time because she'd been in Florida less than two years and had never run a statewide political campaign.

If Scott had lost, Sellers would have been the obvious scapegoat, especially after the “Fangate” fiasco when Scott showed up on stage seven minutes late at a TV debate on Oct. 15 in Davie, in protest of Charlie Crist’s portable fan.

But Scott won, and Sellers gets a lot of the credit.

“Kudos to Melissa Sellers … and the others on the much maligned Rick Scott campaign team,” Republican strategist and lobbyist J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich said on Twitter. “Nothing vindicates you like victory.”

Disciplined and driven, Sellers managed a $100 million-plus campaign operation, the most expensive in the country in the 2014 cycle.

“She grew up a lot during the campaign,” said Tallahassee lobbyist Brian Ballard, a Scott supporter. “And she’s absolutely loyal.”

Sellers chose a career in politics after she worked as an intern in the George W. Bush White House in 2003.

She has a combative streak that has caused flashes of controversy in the past.

News outlets in Louisiana complained that Sellers restricted access to Gov. Bobby Jindal while serving as his chief spokeswoman from 2007 to 2011. In a 2008 Esquire magazine profile of Jindal, writer Mike Sager described Sellers as “a solid woman, quick on the draw with both her smile and her middle finger.”

In March, leaked emails written by Scott's campaign finance co-chairman, Coral Gables health care executive Mike Fernandez, quoted Sellers as saying, “We need to be paranoid in the political world.”

Fernandez quit over what he described as a campaign being poorly run by inexperienced advisers.

Scott media adviser Curt Anderson, an ally of Sellers, sprang to her defense, telling Politico that “she is one of the most talented operatives there is. There is not one person that the Rick Scott campaign would trade her for.”

Sellers wouldn’t be the first campaign manager to become chief of staff. When Charlie Crist won as a Republican in 2006, he appointed campaign manager George LeMieux to the post, and Ballard was chief of staff to former Gov. Bob Martinez after holding a variety of campaign positions.

With the long campaign behind him, Scott looked more relaxed and confident Wednesday.

“The partisanship’s behind us,” he said. “We’re going to go back to our mission of focusing on jobs and education.”

Striking a moderate tone, Scott said his focus will be on education and the environment. He said he will fulfill his campaign promise to cut taxes by $1 billion over the next two years and that his next budget will include $18.9 billion for schools and $7,176 in per pupil spending, the highest in state history.

Those decisions are all subject to the approval of the Legislature.

In his campaign for re-election, Scott also called for the Department of Education to conduct a “thorough investigation of all standardized tests” and said he’ll continue to oppose tuition increases at state colleges and universities.

Scott will have to devise a way to implement Amendment 1, the water and land amendment that was the most popular issue on the Nov. 4 ballot. It requires that one-third of all existing taxes from real estate transactions — a total of about $20 billion over 20 years — be set aside to protect water and land.

Scott said his main focus will continue to be attracting jobs.

“We will beat Texas, eventually, in job growth,” Scott said. “That’s what my focus is.”

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com.

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