Gov. Rick Scott scores a zero on the empathy meter

Video of Rick Scott’s confrontation with a loud and rude constituent went viral.
Video of Rick Scott’s confrontation with a loud and rude constituent went viral.

Our governor is a data-driven technocrat with an empathy deficit. He lives and works in a bubble and his handlers make sure it remains sterile and undisturbed. Their goal is to not let anyone get close enough to ask a pesky, challenging or, heaven forbid, disrespectful questions.

Cara Jennings pierced the bubble last week by asking several blunt questions after Gov. Rick Scott walked into a Starbucks in Gainesville. When he refused to engage with her or answered dismissively, she got angry and called him a nasty name. The video of that confrontation is one of the more amazing moments of Scott’s tenure as governor.

Jennings was loud, rude and used a vulgar term. Yet seeing a citizen take on our secretive governor was also kind of delicious.

The governor’s reaction was classic. When his few murmured, unresponsive answers didn’t stop Jennings — they only spurred her on — he simply walked away. Without his coffee.

Other governors like Lawton Chiles, Jeb Bush or Charlie Crist would probably have walked over to Jennings and said something like, “Look, you’ve obviously got a gripe and I’m willing to hear it over a cup of coffee, but not if you’re going to shout. So, if you want to talk like adults, take it down a notch or I’m out of here.”

Of course, for Scott to react that way would take a brain, heart and soul transplant. He may be a numbers whiz, but he’s a zero on the empathy meter.

Reporters regularly ask the governor tough questions — more politely than Jennings did — but rarely get a straight answer. We get that wan, thin, teeth-baring smile, a vague line about the topic inquired about and then Scott’s well-practiced peroration about all the jobs created in Florida over the last five years. He tried that with Jennings: “We got a million jobs,” Scott told her. To which she responded, “A million jobs? Great, Who here has a great job or looking forward to finishing school? Do you really feel like you have a job coming up? You stripped women of access to public healthcare. Shame on you, Rick Scott. We depend on those services.”

Jennings was blunt, brassy and profane. She’s a former Lake Worth city commissioner and classic liberal; a 33-year-old single mother who was P.O.’d because Scott signed a bill limiting low-income women’s access to preventive care and abortions. He also refused to expand Medicaid, which evidently resulted in Jennings and her young daughter losing their health-insurance coverage.

Scott advised her to go to her county health department, which only infuriated her more: “You cut Medicaid so I couldn’t get Obamacare,” Jennings yelled at Scott. “You are an [expletive]! You don’t care about working people. You should be ashamed to show your face around here.”

Scott doesn’t seem to understand that, however annoying she was, Jennings is also his constituent. Constituent service includes talking to people who have a different point of view. That’s not the world Scott inhabits. His is a world of CEOs who make executive decisions and issue orders to subordinates. For Scott, citizens — at least the ones like Jennings — are annoying subordinates.

The kicker came the next day when Scott’s political action committee released a TV ad mocking Jennings as a “latte liberal,” a nice turn of phrase, and calling her an “anarchist,” a term she evidently once used to describe herself. It also accused her of not reciting the Pledge of Allegiance when she was a Lake Worth commissioner, which is also true. It’s an extreme position, but one the courts have said is protected by the Constitution, So, yes, Cara Jennings is a political radical with a loud mouth. So what?

Here’s what is most distressing about this episode: The governor could have tried to talk to Jennings courteously even though she wasn’t courteous to him. He could have told her to either pipe down or that he was going to leave. He could have heard her out and told her he disagreed. He did none of that. He left and let his political hatchet men attack Jennings in a TV spot the next day.

In other words, he released his paid political hit men on Jennings, when he should have handled the situation himself — and with more empathy and political deftness than he seems capable of showing.

Pathetic. Weak. Wussy.

Related stories from Miami Herald