Gov. Scott harmonizes, gains inside track in state politics

Rick Scott began his political career in Florida as an outsider running not only against the opposition Democrats and government itself, but against his own Republican Party.

In his primary campaign against Bill McCollum, solidly backed by the GOP establishment, he blasted McCollum and other Republicans as “career politicians” promulgating “frivolous, wasteful spending.” As governor, he went over their heads to his tea party backers to boost his agenda.

Returning the favor, GOP leaders ran campaign ads about his company’s history of Medicare fraud, and the GOP-controlled Legislature downsized his proposals for tax cuts and government layoffs.

A year after taking office, things have changed. Scott is no longer the anti-establishment Republican; instead, he embodies the Florida GOP establishment.

He has shifted his top staff from outsiders to insiders, and works daily with the dealmakers he once condemned.

He has come to alignment with the party on most issues — he moderated some of his most drastic stances, and the tea party-influenced GOP has grown more conservative.

As spokesman for the state party, Scott gets warm receptions at high-profile GOP events — the national party quarterly conference in Tampa in August, and the Presidency 5 state convention in September.

In an interview last week, Scott acknowledged that he has changed his governing style, but not his beliefs.

“I’ve learned that you have to bring everybody along,” he said. “You have to explain your point of view to everybody and you have to listen very carefully.”

That listening, he said, has affected stances, including his decision to seek a $1 billion increase in school funding this year.

But, he said, “I haven’t changed who I am. I always go back and say why did I run, what are my core beliefs. … I know more about the process than I did a year ago, but I’m still focused on the same things I thought about when I ran.”

 

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Some change was inevitable, political experts say.

“When you become governor of Florida … you have to be part of the establishment. You’re the definition of an insider,” said Brian Ballard, a Tallahassee insider who was a key Scott opponent during the campaign but is now a political ally and adviser.

One of the state’s most prominent lobbyists, Ballard raises money for Scott’s Let’s Get to Work political action committee.

State Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, one of only a handful of state legislators who backed Scott in his primary against McCollum, said the change in Scott has gone further than that.

“He absolutely has transitioned from outsider to insider establishment, playing the game the way it’s typically been played,” she said.

In some ways, she said, that change was good. Scott has improved his poor dealings with the media, and his top aides are now skilled at the processes of government.

But he has also “cozied up to lobbyists,” starting with fundraising for his inaugural festivities, in which he revived the tradition of a formal ball, Dockery said. She cited his decisions to cancel a high-speed rail project and approve the SunRail commuter rail project as politically motivated.

Neutral political analysts say political realities, including Florida’s unusually powerful Legislature, have forced Scott to adapt.

Low public approval ratings and successful court challenges to some of his favorite initiatives also have pushed Scott in less-radical directions, as he and other Republicans worry about losing their advantage in the 2012 election, University of Florida political scientist Dan Smith said.

“It’s difficult to be a maverick in Tallahassee,” given the powerful Legislature, he said. “When you have approval ratings that are the worst in the country, that also gives you pause about how far you can push your agenda.”

Scott’s defeat of McCollum in a bitter primary was a shocking upset of the GOP power structure.

“In Tallahassee tonight, the dealmakers are crying in their cocktails,” he said in his victory speech. “Today’s vote rocked the political establishment in this state.”

 

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With little hope of raising money from within the party, Scott spent his own, more than $70 million, through the general election.

His campaign ads tied McCollum to the fundraising scandal that led to the indictment of former party Chairman Jim Greer, a major embarrassment to the party. That led to a public argument between Scott and Haley Barbour, Mississippi governor, former national party chairman and head of the Republican Governors Association.

McCollum, meanwhile, called Scott a crook because of the Medicare fraud, for which Scott’s former hospital company, Columbia/HCA, paid a $1.7 billion fine.

Even former Gov. Jeb Bush, who rarely takes sides in GOP primaries, reacted to Scott’s rising poll numbers by hitting the campaign trail with McCollum and encouraging reporters to investigate Scott’s business background.

Incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon, the two most powerful legislators Scott was to face as governor, provided money to fuel McCollum’s attacks.

After Scott won the primary, Cannon and Haridopolos joined him in a show of party unity for the general election, but the tension didn’t evaporate.

Scott broke tradition by making his first major policy announcement, his 2011 budget proposal, not in Tallahassee before an audience of officeholders, lobbyists and the media, but at a tea party rally in Eustis. The legislative leaders gave a cool reception to some of the top priorities in that proposal, including phasing out Florida’s $1.9 billion corporate income tax. Staring at a multibillion-dollar deficit even without tax cuts, they didn’t hide their skepticism.

Scott proposed a $65 billion budget with $1.7 billion in tax and fee cuts, including $458 million in corporate tax cuts. The Legislature gave him a $69 billion budget with $308 million in tax cuts, including a meager $30 million in corporate taxes.

He dropped his threat to veto the budget, but did veto $615 million of what he called “wasteful special interest projects,” many of them aimed at legislators’ home districts. He again left Tallahassee to hold the budget-signing ceremony at The Villages.

But Scott’s public image was suffering over drastic cuts to public education, a threat of cuts to state services for the developmentally disabled and other budget controversies.

Successful court challenges halted his initiatives for drug testing for welfare recipients and a freeze on government regulations on business.

A Quinnipiac University poll in May showed him with 29 percent job approval; it has since risen to the mid-30s. His confrontational relationship with the media wasn’t helping.

 

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Apparently sensing a need for a change, Scott seemed to become more amenable to compromise with the Legislature.

He relented on opposition to a prescription drug sales database intended to combat abuse of painkillers. He softened his initial stance that the Florida presidential primary date should conform to party rules, and went along with Cannon, Haridopolos and other elected Republicans who wanted a schedule-busting early date.

In June, facing a unified front of GOP political leaders backing the $1.28 billion SunRail commuter train project, Scott approved the proposal, angering his own tea party base, even though he had publicly expressed reservations about it.

University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus said Scott’s SunRail decision stemmed from “an awareness of the political clout in the I-4 corridor.”

About the same time, Scott reshuffled his top staff, replacing chief of staff Mike Prendergast of Tampa, a retired Army officer with little political or government experience, with Tallahassee insider Stephen MacNamara, the kind of person Scott had campaigned against.

MacNamara is a former high-profile legislative staff member, secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, and veteran GOP political operative.

Also gone was GOP political operative Mary Ann Campbell, who had helped run Scott’s personally funded advertising campaign against President Barack Obama’s health care reform proposal before Scott ran for governor.

Scott’s advisers engineered an image makeover, having him appear in public in open-collar shirts instead of suits, doing scores of media interviews and beginning a series of “workdays” — modeled on those of a former governor and senator, Bob Graham — including serving doughnuts in a shop in Tampa.

Suddenly, the governor who as a candidate had refused the traditional interviews with newspaper editorial boards, was doing them regularly, and even bringing doughnuts to morning show crews at Tampa TV stations.

Scott acknowledged he is also taking on a role as Florida Republican Party leader.

“I’m very focused on making sure the Republican nominee becomes the next president,” he said. “The Republican Party agrees with what I believe in.”

Some Scott tea party backers say they’re not disappointed.

” ‘Pragmatic’ is a better word” than “politician” for the change, said Tampa Tea Party chairman Sharon Calvert.

“I wouldn’t say he’s become an establishment governor, but I’m sure he’s cognizant of what’s happened in some other states,” where governors including Wisconsin’s Scott Walker have suffered backlashes from radical political initiatives.

MacManus said Scott “has become more moderate on some key policy issues like education and environment, moving a bit more toward the middle, where most Florida Republicans are.”

“It’s evidence of his maturation in office and recognition that being governor by itself is not enough to get policies implemented.

“The maverick stance got him elected, but the moderate stance helps him govern.”