Gov. Scott Looking Like a Leader
After two legislative sessions and a little more than a year in office, Rick Scott has come a long way toward proving skeptics wrong.
This newspaper, which endorsed Rick Scott’s 2010 opponent, Democrat Alex Sink, doubted a person with no political experience, however successful he’d been in business, could take over cold as chief executive of the fourth most populous state in the union and run it credibly.
But Scott, who beat Sink by a tiny margin, has done just that. He has shown a capacity for growth and moderation, while sticking to his conservative, small-government beliefs.
Scott has loosened up his stiff original style, circulated among people of various sympathies and listened to them, and been more open with the press. He has stuck to but softened his core conservative agenda, which remains popular, and has shifted tone in an effort to improve his personal image.
Scott should continue his opening to the center, sticking to the secular issues such as jobs, the economy, lower taxes and smaller government that have always been popular, even if he wasn’t.
Stay focused on jobs
The governor should avoid the hot-button culture-war issues such as abortion, gay rights and immigration, which have appeal to the right, but, as Rick Santorum has discovered, can limit a politician’s success with more moderate voters, even in the Republican Party. Drug testing for welfare recipients (last year) and state employees (this year) are offensive and needlessly intrusive in our view, but seem quite popular.
In 2010 Scott vigorously supported a Florida law on immigration similar to Arizona’s controversial effort to make life uncomfortable for illegal immigrants. That has not come to a vote in Florida, and we hope never will. Scott says he opposes racial profiling; Arizona-style state laws are an open invitation to just that, one reason they have run into trouble in the courts.
Scott should stay away from such anti-immigrant passions. Such a bill failed in 2011. Thankfully, he did not seek the bill’s return in the 2012 session, and hopefully that issue is behind him.
He should stick to his central campaign promise as a candidate with private-sector successes under his belt: to create jobs, 700,000 of them in seven years, on top of whatever might be added by a slowly recovering economy.
After a year, Scott has eased off on claiming job gains are necessarily the result of his policies, but he can crow about a 2.1 percent drop in Florida’s brutal jobless rate. At 9.6 percent, it’s the lowest since March 2009, but still among the nation’s highest.
The 100,000 to 150,000 or so jobs added are either to Scott’s credit or not, depending on who’s assigning the credits. But his corporate tax cuts seem popular anyway, and make sense. He will claim some credit for whatever jobs are added, deserved or not, just as any politician will.
In his first year in office, Scott came out of the gates as a stiff ideologue, playing hard to his tea party base and neglecting the traditional Tallahassee and media schmoozing that most politicians consider essential. He was surrounded by handlers who scripted his every move and seemed terrified of letting their rookie risk candid exchanges with reporters or potentially unfriendly residents.
Last year, Scott’s budget cut $1.35 billion from education and $1 billion from Medicaid, both highly controversial.
Teacher tenure reform and requirements for public employees to contribute to their pension plans (blocked for the moment by the courts) were reasonable in our view, but also very controversial.
Not that he was unsuccessful in his first session, getting about everything he wanted except the immigration law.
Scott said he was not concerned about popularity, and the result was approval ratings that were among the lowest ever measured for a governor by the Quinnipiac University poll. Even as late as December, Scott was polling at 26 percent. That rose to 38 percent in January, still the lowest rating of any governor in the seven key states surveyed by Quinnipiac, but a substantial improvement.
Some of that improvement can be attributed to a crisp, practical legislative agenda, with lots of direct gubernatorial lobbying and a minimum of culture-war issues.
In 2012 Scott trimmed back his legislative agenda, sticking to three items, all of which passed: a $1 billion boost in K-12 funding, reform of the personal injury protection auto insurance racket, and a corporate tax cut advertised as a jobs package.
The end-of-session news photos showed a grinning Scott exchanging congratulations with legislative leaders.
He has shown growing skill at dealing with a Legislature that is run by ideologically sympathetic fellow Republicans, but some of whose members found him arrogant last year.
Keep reaching out
Scott is listening to new advisers who have urged him to get out more, and visit editorial boards even though they had virtually all endorsed Sink.
They must have known that the guy had plenty of personal appeal if he would just relax and show it.
A big part of the reason for The News-Press editorial board’s endorsement of Sink was that Scott refused invitations to meet with board members and talk about his campaign.
That’s why we were delighted when he initiated a meeting with the editorial board in October.
At that visit, board members found the governor to be relaxed, largely candid, and charming.
He emphasized his wish to hear from people with suggestions about how to deal with state problems, and we urge people to continue taking him up on that offer.
We want to welcome the governor back to the board table this year.
A signal event in the emergence of The New Scott was a visit in February to Dean Steel Buildings in Fort Myers. Scott, with aides well in the background, chatted easily with employees, asking them how he could improve his performance and pulled up his pants leg to display custom cowboy boots with his initials and the state seal.
Scott’s next big challenge could be to change course on Medicaid as he did with education. Hospitals and counties are due to get hit with major cost increases because of state legislation and a continuing budget shortfall.
For Scott, the goal is to accomplish political goals while preserving his appeal as a no-nonsense businessman who can trim government and save money while stimulating the economy.
He has shaken up state government and public life as no governor in memory.
If he can claim success in creating jobs and continue to grow as a political leader, Scott stands a good chance of overcoming his initial unpopularity and positioning himself well for re-election.