Op-Ed

Rick Scott, man of mystery

MAN OF SECRETS: Critics say Gov. Rick Scott runs the state like a privately held business, with little transparency.
MAN OF SECRETS: Critics say Gov. Rick Scott runs the state like a privately held business, with little transparency. EL NUEVO HERALD

The two times Rick Scott ran for governor he made one key promise: To put people to work and run the state like a business. He's had more success with the former — although he takes more credit than he deserves — than the latter. And he’s had no success at all at making himself a beloved or even likeable figure in Florida politics. To do that, Scott would have to take some risks, stand firm on some tough issues and explain why. As Bush 41 would say, not gonna happen.

The governor's approval rating recently hit an all-time high — a measly 50 percent — mainly because he kept a low profile for several weeks. Out of sight, out of public disfavor. Nobody saw him except various businesses around the state that he jetted to in his private plane (without disclosing either a flight plan or who’s on board) for carefully-orchestrated congratulatory ceremonies.

Scott’s staff makes sure he gets the rock-star welcome and a guided tour of whatever company he's visiting (which is recorded by the governor's media team and blast emailed to the world). Then Scott goes to a podium where he presents the company CEO with a kind of cheesy medal and thanks him or her for hiring more workers and/or resisting another state's pitch to relocate.

Then the company CEO returns the favor by praising Scott effusively. It's a regular love fest. Scott clearly loves these ceremonies because they're the one place he feels entirely at ease: A successful businessman hanging with other successful businessmen and women. It's a bottom line, profit-and-loss world where lines are not blurred by political disputes or snarky reporters.

Scott, of course, also attends these ceremonies because he’s the “jobs governor” and thinks jobs will cure whatever ails Florida. It’s old-fashioned, trickle-down economics, but there's a measure of truth to it. But wouldn't it also be good — for Scott and the state — if he showed some of the same passion and concern for social justice issues, threats to our environment and the state of the arts and humanities?

In addition to promoting Florida's economy, how about promoting, say, the Miami City Ballet or New World Symphony or going to Shabbat services at a synagogue? Scott has a very narrow comfort zone and it hasn't gotten any bigger in the five years he's been in office.

The governor raised his profile last week by touring state emergency operations centers as Tropical Storm Erika threatened Florida. At each stop there were camera-ready visits with emergency managers, first responders and local elected leaders. At the Miami-Dade EOC Scott said all the right things about being prepared for a storm, but his impression as a leader in charge during an impending crisis was lackluster.

A bit curious, too, because Scott's staff demanded that his news conference be held in front of the Miami-Dade EOC at mid-day in 92-degree heat rather than in an air-conditioned room inside already wired for TV cameras. To Scott and his staff, optics were what mattered. It was a telling dig at the media, with whom Scott has a strained relationship.

The reason for that is his guardedness. Scott is unfailingly courteous, but never at ease with reporters. Reporters don't want to be confidantes, but they do expect politicians to be transparent and truthful. I don't know any reporter in whom Scott has ever confided or been entirely open. It's a habit that must go back to his days as CEO of HCA, a publicly-traded company where whatever he said in public had financial ramifications.

The result is the least transparent state administration in memory. To that extent, he has run the state like a business — a privately held business that goes to great lengths to keep its proprietary secrets to itself. But Florida is a public enterprise that runs best when it's run openly. Our Sunshine Law says it must be.

That's a problem for Scott. He recently settled a lawsuit for $700,000 with a Tallahassee lawyer who sued him and the cabinet for breaking state open-records and open-meeting laws. I recently asked Scott why the state Dept. of Environmental Protection would pay a disproportionate share, $445,000, of the settlement. Because they were one of the named defendants in the case, he said dismissively.

I also asked him why he had apparently done state business on a private email account when he denied to me and other reporters that he had. “You'll have to ask the lawyers who handled the lawsuit,” is all he would tell me. Telling the truth seems to be a base line requirement for someone who holds the highest elective office in the state.

Unfortunately, I don't see Scott changing his ways in the remaining three years of his second term. Like Popeye, he is who he is. What happens in his world when he's out of the public view remains mostly a mystery — “staff and call time” is what his daily agenda usually lists. How he and his policy advisers — and who exactly are they? — arrive at decisions is anyone's guess. Ask him and he gives you his positions, but no hint at how he reached them. As a music critic once said of a talented but underperforming singer, he shows you the car, but doesn't take you for a ride. It's possible that Tallahassee is to Scott what Oakland was to Gertrude Stein: “There's no there there.”

There’s something ineffable about a political leader, a quality you can't quite put your finger on but know is there. As a supreme court justice once said of pornography, I don't know what it is, but I know it when I see it.

So, too, with political leaders. You know one when you see one. And when you don't.

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