Scott's biggest election hurdle: Winning over his own party
Published: Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 5:05 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 5:05 p.m.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott faces a dire political situation and his awkward relationship with the Legislature makes a rebound even more difficult.
As the Legislature prepares to open its annual 60-day session Tuesday, Scott needs lawmakers’ help more than ever to win some convincing political victories and reset his relationship with a public that has soured on him.
But Scott is far from guaranteed to get that support from legislators with whom he has struggled to work since he came to Tallahassee a little more than two years ago.
Even though this will be his third legislative session, state government observers say he acts like a political rookie.
“He’s had difficulty working with the legislators from the start,” said Aubrey Jewett, who teaches state government and politics at the University of Central Florida.
The problem is three-fold, Jewett said.
Scott’s top-down, CEO approach to politics treats lawmakers more like employees than equals at times.
He campaigned as an outsider and defeated the primary candidate that most Republicans in Tallahassee really wanted to win. While he has made short-term alliances, his outsider approach has kept him from creating the true political friends that most Florida governors have historically needed.
His approval ratings now are so low — as few as one in three Floridians approve of his job — legislators have little motivation to invest their own political capital in a damaged candidate who could hurt their own ambitions.
As a result, Scott faces problems in pursuing his two top agenda items for 2013: eliminating the state’s sales tax on manufacturing equipment and increasing education funding by $1.2 billion, including teacher pay raises.
Lawmakers politely praise the governor for the ideas, but stop short of predicting their approval.
“Just because he wants to do something, doesn’t mean it will happen,” Jewett said.
House Speaker Will Weatherford says he supports the idea of tax cuts and more money for education, but added that he is under no obligation to enact Scott’s top priorities.
“I don’t feel pressure to do any priorities for people. I feel pressure to deliver on good policy for the state,” Weatherford told The Associated Press.
Scott has tried to meet individually with legislators more often to improve his personal ties. Yet, Scott has repeatedly undercut his efforts with missteps. His slips are well documented.
Though Scott supported election reforms that cut early voting hours, last December Scott shifted the blame to the Legislature for the unpopular move that lawmakers are now scrambling to reverse.
In January, Scott proposed the large increase in education funding and a raise for teachers, but never gave lawmakers advance notice, catching many of them by surprise.
And in February, Scott laid out a plan why Florida should accept an expanded Medicaid program for health care that was a central to President Barack Obama’s health care reform law. Scott, again, did not consult with legislators, who must decide whether to approve the expansion.
Jewett and others say Scott has approached public policy like the chief executive he was in private business. He makes pronouncements and gives orders, offending the egos of Florida legislators who typically see themselves as equals to the governor.
Success in Tallahassee requires a collaborative effort because the governor is limited to what the Legislature will pass and the Legislature is subject to the governor’s veto pen.
“It’s a three-legged stool up here,” state Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said. “He needs the Legislature. He can’t write bills or pass any legislation by himself.”
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said it is understandable that Scott’s relationship with legislators has been bumpy at times. Gaetz likened Scott’s arrival to a “hostile takeover” of a company and employees are distrusting of what lies ahead.
“When Rick Scott walked into the Florida Capitol on inauguration day, he walked into a culture where almost everybody in the culture voted for somebody else — in the primary if not in the general,” Gaetz said.
Scott was an unknown in Republican politics in 2010 when he jumped into the governor’s race and defeated Bill McCollum, the choice of establishment Republicans in Tallahassee, in a primary.
Scott, a tea party favorite, won his general election over Democrat Alex Sink by just about 60,000 votes out of 5 million cast.
While that outsider role helped him win election, Jewett said he is paying the price now.
“When you beat the establishment candidate, it doesn’t buy you much loyalty,” Jewett said. “You can win short-term allies, but you don’t get long-term friends.”
Scott already has announced plans to run for re-election in 2014.
No substantial Republican candidates have filed to challenge him in a primary, though former Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Democrat, is widely considered a likely foe in a general election battle.
But Scott is hobbled by the depth of his unpopularity.
While Florida governors have limited power in dictating the Legislature’s agenda, they often can influence the process by using their office as a bully pulpit.
Crist, who was governor from 2006-10, and Jeb Bush, a Republican who was governor from 1998 to 2006, both used their popularity to win victories in the Legislature.
But most public polling has shown Scott with approval ratings in the 30s — the lowest recorded for any Florida governor in the last 25 years.
Scott’s popularity has been in the dumps since his first year in office when he slashed $1 billion from the state education budget and killed the federal funding for the Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed rail project that promised thousands of construction jobs.
Subsequent battles with school teachers, police and firefighters over pensions only created more unrest with Florida voters.
That has increased the stakes in this session for Scott. Legislative wins coupled with an improving economy could help Scott rebuild his public standing.
“It’s extremely important for him to accomplish something in this session that can be seen as a real win,” said Jewett, the UCF professor.
If Scott cannot boost his numbers, speculation will only grow that the GOP is shopping for another candidate who would have a better shot of keeping the governor’s mansion for the party.
In the last two weeks alone, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Attorney General Pam Bondi — both considered future gubernatorial contenders — have publicly disagreed with Scott’s decision to accept an expanded Medicaid program. Weatherford, the House speaker, also has fended off questions about whether he is considering challenging Scott in a primary in 2014.
“He’s got a lot of work to do for sure,” Jewett said.