Florida

The perpetual campaign of Gov. Rick Scott

FILE--Florida Gov. Rick Scott visits Hialeah March 9, 2015, to talk about a road construction project currently in progress.
FILE--Florida Gov. Rick Scott visits Hialeah March 9, 2015, to talk about a road construction project currently in progress. el Nuevo Herald staff

For Gov. Rick Scott, the campaign never ends.

He can’t run for governor again, but he’s still collecting six-figure campaign donations from special interests that have a direct stake in legislation he will sign or veto. The money buys TV ads featuring Scott, still looking and sounding like a candidate, walking across a big green cutout of Florida, “where dreams come true.”

Scott travels near and far, chasing jobs, and by his side is videographer Nathan Edwards, capturing it all on tape to be played for audiences at upcoming Cabinet meetings. Scott is Florida’s first governor with a videographer on the public payroll to produce campaign-style videos, such as his recent visit to a new Wawa convenience store in Fort Myers.

Scott has a networking program in his office called Proactive Outreach in which state employees comb through business journals and magazines in search of people whose achievements merit letters of congratulations, from entrepreneurs to Eagle scouts. After a paragraph of phrase on official state letterhead, Scott switches to campaign mode, boasting about “our low-tax, pro-growth strategies.”

“We need to continue to get our message out and make sure that we continue to promote our state,” Scott says of his salesmanship. “I think it’s important to continue to talk about what’s important to our state: education funding, make sure we continue the tax cuts, and make sure we continue to grow jobs.”

Scott is not always consistent on matters of substance. Take education funding or Medicaid expansion, for example. But he is on matters of style.

The strategy that helped him win two elections is the essence of his approach to governing: Repeat a simple message over and over, raise lots of money and use TV to talk directly to people in 30-second commercials, avoiding the filter of the news media.

“He believes in communicating directly with voters, and to do that, he’s got to have funds to buy paid media,” says Mark Delegal, a lawyer-lobbyist in Tallahassee who generally supports Scott’s agenda. “Think about how he got elected the first time. He needed to buy name ID. I think he just turns to a trusted place when he needs to communicate with the voters.

“But it is new to Florida,” he said.

Scott is the first Florida governor who still solicits high-dollar campaign checks, even though the election ended six months ago and he’s not officially running for another office. The contributions continue to pour into his political committee, Let’s Get to Work, to fund TV ads underscoring his message of growing jobs, spending more for schools and seaports and the need to cut taxes — the latter pitch aimed at his fellow Republicans in the Legislature.

During the Legislature’s regular session in March and April, lawmakers are not allowed to solicit campaign money, to avoid the obvious perception of a quid pro quo. But no such restriction limits the governor.

In April alone, Let’s Get to Work raised $677,000, including $150,000 from Associated Industries of Florida, $100,000 from an AIF-related political committee, and $100,000 from Jeffrey Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Also in April, Scott’s committee spent $657,000 on TV ads and production costs, using the same firm that produced his campaign ads last year.

Scott’s style of perpetually campaigning reflects his political circumstances that are unique in Florida history.

He literally bought his way to prominence in 2010, spending more than $70 million of his hospital fortune on TV ads.

He won his 2010 race and 2014 re-election by the barest of margins and without receiving a majority of votes either time. Polls have consistently shown that he’s not personally popular, even though the state’s economy has steadily improved during his four-plus years in office.

“The only thing Rick Scott has succeeded at is twice winning close elections,” says Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of political science at USF St. Petersburg and an outspoken Scott critic.

Paulson, a Republican, says Scott is weakened by a team of inexperienced advisers, a lack of familiarity with the political process and an inability to interact with legislators, which becomes glaring at times like the present, during a tense stalemate over health care policy.

As a multimillionaire former hospital executive who came out of nowhere and ran as an outsider in 2010, Scott had to manufacture a network of local supporters. They didn’t exist because nobody knew him, and most people still don’t know him.

But Scott, ever the disciplined campaigner, is addressing that, too. He’s a prolific letter-writer to people who win awards, get state licenses, retire from government or become U.S. citizens.

Politicians of all stripes routinely send congratulatory letters to constituents. Scott has taken it to a new level, with letters in 2014 to 594,710 people who got state licenses as barbers, real estate agents or dozens of other professions.

Another 121,000 letters went out last year from Scott’s outreach operation to people who won the lottery.

The numerical totals are tallied by his staff in weekly reports on “proactive outreach,” noting letters to college grads, high school sports champions and community volunteers.

“Congratulations on Yuengling Beer Company of Tampa recently being included in the Tampa Bay Business Journal’s list of top breweries,” Scott wrote to the firm’s director of operations, Jim Helmke. “You are to be commended for building a company that is recognizable within your community.”

Helmke said he had no recollection of getting Scott’s letter in December, and that he was not authorized to speak for the company.

Scott frequently reminds staff members with follow-up questions about appointments, meetings or questions about how things work. His staff keeps a running spreadsheet of Scott’s requests.

“Please call Eric Silagy about a judicial appointment,” Scott told his general counsel on April 2. Silagy is CEO of Florida Power & Light, the state’s biggest and most powerful public utility.

Scott’s office declined to specify which appointment Silagy was interested in, and said the governor gets thousands of such requests.

Scott ordered an aide in February to arrange a meeting with the Department of Transportation “to come explain how they use outside architects and engineers.”

On a personal level, Scott still struggles to connect with everyday Floridians. But he keeps working at it, telling audiences anecdotes about his grand kids, and no matter who the governor is, it’s a big deal when he shows up surrounded by cameras.

A smiling Scott paid a visit Wednesday to an elementary school in Tallahassee for students with special needs. He arrived clutching a handful of gold medals known as the Governor’s Shine Awards, given to excellent teachers, and draped one around the neck of Pam Jameson, a teacher at Gretchen Everhart Elementary for 31 years whom he had just met.

“I’m probably one of the few teachers that actually voted for him,” Jameson said. “I don’t mind some of his educational policies. I’m a teacher who’s not necessarily for tenure.”

Scott made small talk with students, posed for pictures and told Jameson that his daughter once owned a pair of shorts identical to the ones the teacher was wearing.

“He has to persevere,” says Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. “He’s not a Jeb Bush. He hasn’t amassed political capital. Rick Scott barely had enough political capital to win the last two elections.”

Gaetz is convinced that Scott is positioning himself to run for office again, most likely in 2018 for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Bill Nelson.

“I’d be surprised if Rick Scott doesn’t run for another office. He’s keeping his artillery well-oiled,” Gaetz said.

Scott lightly dismissed the idea after his elementary school tour.

“I’ve got three years and what, seven or eight months to go with this, and I’ll continue to do this job the best I can,” Scott says. “I’ll worry about that later. It’s a long way away.”

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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