Florida Gov. Rick Scott's ever present, camera-ready grin masks the strain of an embattled politician. His approval ratings rank at the bottom among the nation's governors, and Democrats are poised to use him as the bogeyman of the 2012 election in a key battleground state. He can't match the always-sunny-in-Florida cheer of his predecessor, Charlie Crist, but Scott rivals any Wall Street CEO's unyielding optimism amid dismal earnings.
"Hey, how's it going? You doing all right?" he says as he smiles and grips a woman's hand.
Scott is working the halls in a place where he isn't a familiar face: the legislative office building. It's rare to see the governor leave his office, behind gigantic wooden doors at the end of a great hall, to whip votes on legislation. Lawmakers usually come to him. But these are desperate times. Scott is working to charm four Republican senators into changing their votes. With only days left in the lawmaking session, he needs a last-minute victory on a bill that prohibits union members from paying dues through payroll deductions, a significant funding source for the state's organized labor.
But the former corporate CEO and political newcomer is hearing an unfamiliar word from all four -- "no."
The legislation -- and another bill eliminating traditional government pensions -- is a top priority for Scott, one of the new hard-charging Republican governors, Wisconsin's Scott Walker and Ohio's John Kasich among them, who are aggressively pushing a conservative agenda that attacks public-sector workers. But Scott is a stranger even to legislators of his own party, which holds supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature. A newcomer to politics, he lacks the relationships, political or personal, necessary to secure a deal in the Capitol, and lawmakers say he puts little effort into developing them. State Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla tells Scott after the fruitless visit, "I'm sorry this had to be our first face-to-face meeting -- but I think you're doing a great job."
Florida is a diverse state with complicated politics, the nuances of which Scott doesn't seem to quite understand. Three of the senators he approached represent strong-minded Cuban voters in Miami -- voters who consider repression of unions a hallmark of the Castro regime. None of the lawmakers can risk such a comparison. The fourth senator is a former small-town sheriff who worked closely with unionized deputies.
State Sen. Dennis Jones, another Republican opposed to the bill and the longest serving lawmaker in the Capitol, says Scott is ignorant about "things that have taken place and commitments that were made long before he even moved to Florida." (Scott barely met the requirement that a gubernatorial candidate live in Florida for seven years before holding office.) Jones, whose hair is as white as the beaches in his Gulf Coast district, recalls the work it took to get the unions to support Republicans in recent decades. "Over the years, we've developed good relationships with the police and firefighters, and when it comes to campaigns, they've been good friends and good workers," he says. "So early on when this bill came out, a lot of us said, 'You've been good to us; we're not going to get involved in how you do business.'"
The union-dues bill died that day in the Senate. Later, at a luncheon speech to the conservative Florida Center-Right Coalition, Scott appeared perplexed about why his effort failed. "One of the things that doesn't make sense to me: paycheck protection," he said, exasperated. ("Paycheck protection" is conservatives' term for the abolition of union-dues deductions from paychecks.) "Why would that take any time to pass?"
Scott's emphasis on weakening the political clout of the state's labor movement, however, stumped the unions. Unlike Wisconsin, Florida is a right-to-work state, in which union power has never loomed that large. Only about 6 percent of the state's workers belong to a union. "We are facing record unemployment, facing major changes, and this guy's walking the halls on a dues bill," says Matt Puckett, the deputy executive director of the state's Police Benevolent Association. "I think he should be embarrassed."
Indeed, critics say Scott's rhetoric and agenda haven't always seemed germane to Florida's particularities. Scott, for instance, wanted to require all public employees to pay 5 percent toward their retirement and put new employees in defined-contribution 401(k) plans -- a proposal similar to measures in many states. But in Florida, the retirement fund is not threatened with collapse, as critics claim is the case in other states. "They decided to tax public workers to balance the budget," says Ron Meyer, a lobbyist for the Florida Education Association, the state teachers' union. Combined with the union-dues bill, Meyer suggests, the proposal shows how state Republicans are following the playbook of the national GOP and groups such as the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council. "Instead of looking at Florida's needs, they decided to carry out their dogma," he adds.
Much of Scott's agenda does seem to fit the national Republican playbook: restricting civil lawsuits; weakening unions; eliminating regulations, particularly environmental rules that may affect growth; cutting state jobs; and overhauling the education system by fostering more charter schools and mandating more testing. The first major bill Scott signed eliminated tenure protections for teachers and tied their salaries to student test scores. The far-ranging legislation is one of the most sweeping in the nation and a similar measure was vetoed by Gov. Crist the previous year after tens of thousands of critics lobbied his office and held rallies across the state. Scott eagerly signed the bill -- at a charter school. The budget that the Legislature sent to the governor also included $1.3 billion in education cuts, far less than what Scott had requested but still the lowest per-student spending level in several years.
The cornerstone of the governor's economic plan is an effort to eliminate the state's corporate income tax -- a 5.5 percent levy that already ranked among the lowest in the nation. Fewer than 2 percent of Florida businesses actually pay the tax, and experts question whether killing it would help spur business growth. Scott insists that eliminating it would send a message that the state is open for business.
Critics felt the corporate tax initiative was a vanity quest for Scott to get his picture on Fox News. Republican lawmakers pushed back against the governor, saying tax cuts for the middle and working class were more important than giving big business a break.
By the end of the two-month legislative session, Scott and lawmakers reached a detente. Scott won a number of victories, including measures to revamp economic development efforts, eliminate the state agency that monitors growth management, and expand charter schools. The Legislature also sent along a buffet of red-meat conservative bills that Scott eagerly signed.
Yet Scott's big-ticket items were scaled back. State workers will contribute 3 percent to a retirement fund. It's not the 5 percent Scott sought, but it still amounts to a pay cut after years without raises. And the Legislature approved $308 million in tax cuts, a fraction of the $1.7 billion the governor had requested. Scott did win a $37 million corporate tax cut, again far less than what he wanted, after apparently making assurances that he wouldn't veto some pet projects lawmakers put in the budget.
In an interview conducted near the close of the legislative session -- and after his polling utterly tanked -- Scott sounded steadfast but acknowledged that the new job was an adjustment from the corporate world. He rejected the idea that his policies are overreaching and souring voters. "I've done all along exactly what I said I was going to do when I ran. I told people I was going to freeze regulation, 'Oh gosh, he did it,'" he says mockingly. "I told people the way to get our state back to work is to reduce taxes -- 'Gosh, that's what he wants.' So that shouldn't surprise everybody."
Even now, Scott's top aides still privately marvel that he won the state's governorship last November. But Scott's fortune -- estimated at $218 million a year ago -- enabled his team to build his formidable candidacy from scratch. He spent a whopping $70 million from his own pocket to develop the most sophisticated campaign in state history, crystallized with a snappy "Let's Get to Work" slogan in a state with one of the nation's highest unemployment rates and home-foreclosure rankings.
With nightly polling and dial-measured focus groups, the campaign tested Scott's every message. All the 30 -- second television ads he aired just in the contested Republican primary, if played continuously on one station, would take nearly 25 days to watch.
Scott pitched himself as the epitome of the American dream: The son of a long-haul truck driver with a sixth-grade education, Scott talked about briefly living in public housing, celebrating Christmas without presents, and working his way through school and college to become a jet-setting millionaire health-care executive and co-owner (with George W. Bush) of the Texas Rangers.
The campaign was also able to mask, as much as possible, the scandal that marked Scott's tenure as CEO of Columbia/HCA, the nation's biggest hospital chain. He was ousted in 1997 amid the largest criminal Medicare and Medicaid fraud investigation in U.S. history. The company paid an unprecedented $1.7 billion fine. On the campaign trail, Scott deflected questions about Columbia/HCA, at times waving his hand in the air when asked about it.
He was fortunate that Democrat Alex Sink, the state's chief financial officer and once a rising star in the national party, failed to inspire her base and struggled to match her previous campaign's ability to draw broad support. Scott effectively tied Sink to Barack Obama, even though she attempted to distance herself from the president -- going so far as to duck a joint appearance at a Miami fundraiser.
Scott bested Sink by the slimmest margin in a Florida governor's race in more than 100 years. Sink ran worst in the television markets where competitive congressional races federalized the election and made it hard for her to distinguish herself from the national party. The difference in the end: 61,550 votes.
Even though Scott claimed less than 50 percent of the vote in an election where less than 50 percent of voters cast ballots, he began to govern as if by mandate.
His first 100 days were riddled with controversy. He signed an executive order to mandate drug testing for government employees despite federal court rulings that it violated privacy; he rejected a $2.4 billion federal high-speed-rail grant; he released his state budget at a Tea Party rally held in a Baptist church; he appointed a director for the Agency for Persons with Disabilities who was embroiled in a group-home sex scandal; and he tried to kill a prescription-drug monitoring database in a state with a reputation as the drug tourism capital of the nation. From a public-relations perspective, his biggest gaffe may have been his emergency order to slash money for the developmentally disabled by as much as 40 percent -- a document he filed hours after participating in a Special Olympics torch run.
A Quinnipiac poll released in late May put his support at 29 percent. Worse yet, it showed that 57 percent of registered Florida voters disapproved of his performance in office. By a 54 percent to 29 percent margin, voters also believed the state's new budget was unfair to people like them.
"Scott is a four-letter word to many Florida voters," says Quinnipiac pollster Peter A. Brown. "It is exceedingly rare for an unindicted governor or president to ever be seen as poorly by the electorate as [they see] his Legislature or Congress."
Early polling is, well, early polling. And political consultants caution that Scott can rebound, particularly if the economy improves and he is willing to tweak his approach and learn what it takes to be effective. So far, Florida's unemployment rate fell from 11.9 percent in January, when Scott took office, to 10.8 percent in April.
But the approval numbers apparently were dire enough for Scott's team to take them seriously. In April, in the weeks after an earlier but almost as devastating Quinnipiac poll, Scott revoked his executive order cutting care for the developmentally disabled and reversed his opposition to the pill-mill database. He also arranged to sell his family's $62 million stake in Solantic, a chain of urgent-care clinics he founded, after a mounting conflict-of-interest controversy.
Scott's slash-and-burn budget, his abolition of teacher tenure and rejection of the federal government's high-speed-rail grant also awoke the dormant opposition. Democrats largely slept through last year's election, but Susannah Randolph, a progressive activist leading the charge against the governor, says that's all changed now.
I met her in the Tallahassee legislative office of her husband, state Rep. Scott Randolph of Orlando, on the 13th floor of the Capitol, where Republicans put renegade Democrats out of sight and out of mind.
Earlier that morning, outside the legislative chambers, the Randolphs and a cadre of Democrats had held a press conference blasting House Republicans for dedicating two of the final 10 days of the legislative session to a social-conservative checklist that included a constitutional referendum prohibiting the use of public dollars for abortions; a bill strengthening an existing law that requires parental notification for minors having an abortion; a bill, vetoed a year earlier, requiring all women seeking an abortion to receive an ultrasound; a first-in-the-nation measure to limit when doctors can ask patients questions about guns; a constitutional ballot referendum repealing the prohibition against religious organizations receiving state money; and a bill to require welfare recipients to clear a drug test.
"That was a great event, wasn't it?" Randolph says as she arrives at the office. On March 8, the first day of the legislative session, she helped organize statewide "Awake the State" protests that drew an estimated 15,000 people to rallies in 31 cities. Now, she's trying hard to keep the energy going to label Scott "Pink Slip Rick."
The moniker refers to the jobs Scott proposed to cut -- including 118,000 state and local public workers, among them an estimated 20,000 teachers, through cuts to education and the state payroll. The high-speed-rail corridor between Orlando and Tampa was estimated to create 20,000 construction jobs at its peak and more than a thousand permanent positions when completed.
"He is basically costing this state jobs," Randolph says. "He is going at this just like he promised. He's going to run this state like a CEO: 'I'm going to treat my workers like crap, I'm going to make huge profits for myself, and I'm going to pay all the people at the top the most and starve the folks at the bottom,' and that's exactly what's happening."
The 37-year-old community organizer wore a black patterned dress and a pink button with the word "UTERUS" in capital lettering -- a reference to her husband's remark, on the House floor, that if his wife incorporated her uterus as a business, Republicans would stop trying to regulate it through anti-abortion legislation. It went unnoticed until the Republican House speaker asked Democrats not to use the word because of the young legislative pages in the room. Rep. Randolph then publicized the "ban," and it spiraled into the nonsense land of cable TV news, getting a segment on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show.
Susannah Randolph served as the campaign manager for Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson's failed 2010 re-election bid and now runs a political advocacy organization called Florida Action Watch. The anti-Scott movement, developed with the help of Ray Seaman at Progress Florida, a liberal advocacy group in Tallahassee, was inspired by the protests in Wisconsin. Its success has surprised the organizers. "I think it was everybody ... waking up to the fact that we have a Wisconsin situation coming on here," Randolph says. "That we had a Scott Walker here."
One crucial constituency that turned against Florida's governor is the state's Hispanic population. The group is not a monolithic voting block: The Cuban exile population in south Florida is filled with loyal Republicans, but new immigrants are trending Democratic.
Even though Scott won the GOP primary thanks to his far-right support for an Arizona-style immigration law, exit polls showed he remarkably took the Hispanic vote in the general election -- a reflection more on the Sink campaign's failure to court Hispanics than on Scott's popularity with them. His Hispanic support fractured, however, as the immigration issue came to the fore during the legislative session. A House bill would have allowed state and local law-enforcement officers to determine the legal status of any person they investigate for a crime. It also would have required employers to use the federal E-Verify database to ensure the legal status of new hires. "We do believe that if you are violating our laws in our state, you ought to be able to be asked if you are legal or not," Scott said in an interview. The tougher immigration laws eventually died in the Senate (where three Hispanic Republican senators opposed it), another major political defeat for Scott.
Hispanics' opposition to Scott is not coordinated with the progressive rallies that Randolph has organized, which chiefly attract teachers and union supporters. But Hispanics' discontent with Scott is just as strong -- and audible on Spanish-language radio, where angry callers regularly trash Scott and like-minded Miami-area lawmakers. "One of the things he's doing is what the Democratic Party of Florida has not been able to do, which is to unite Hispanics in the state regardless of party affiliation against a Republican governor," says Fernand Amandi, a leading Hispanic political strategist who works with Democratic candidates.
Randolph acknowledges that Democrats in Florida were slow to oppose Scott. But as the consequences of his election have become clearer, Democrats have renewed their spirits. "The difference between 2010 and 2011 is we now have a very defining message around who this governor is," she says. "Our goal is to brand him, and we are doing it. He is now realizing he has to retool his image -- that's huge, that means we are winning."
Teachers are putting significant energy into the anti-Scott movement, holding signs that say "If you can read this, thank a teacher" at roadside protest rallies organized by Randolph and other progressives. The opposition is likely to grow this summer as teachers and other public-sector workers begin receiving smaller paychecks. "Now you're seeing all these groups aligned -- teachers, police, firefighters -- more closely than they have ever been," says Meyer, the teachers' union lobbyist.
At the state level, Democrats hope to make the 2012 election a referendum on Scott, particularly if his numbers continue to sag. "If he stays where he is right now, he will be as familiar to voters next year as Obama was last year," says state Rep. Ron Saunders, the House Democratic leader. "You will see Rick Scott's picture on a lot of legislative mail pieces."
"Next year, all you need to know about the Democrat is the Democrat is not a Rick Scott supporter," he continued. "And at that point, if that's not enough to get every firefighter, cop, and teacher off their ass to go vote ... then you probably deserve what you get."