NAPLES — After blanketing the state with ads focused on him as a conservative outsider, Rick Scott has started to open up to questions from the media and voters.
In his bid for Florida governor, Scott seems to be using his newly minted status as a household name. His media availability has ranged from interviews with partisan blogs and conservative radio show hosts to the state’s biggest newspapers.
As good as Scott’s team has been at creating a message that propelled him to frontrunner status for the Republican nomination, he seems equally skilled at sticking to his message.
In interviews throughout the state, the Naples businessman has held, nearly verbatim, to lines he’s perfected in his commercials.
In reviewing Scott’s interviews to date, the Daily News compiled and compared some of his responses on three big issues facing his campaign:
CEO of Columbia/HCA
Scott’s knowledge of and response to the government charges of fraud against the giant hospital conglomerate he started in the late- ’80s is probably the biggest topic of conversation on the campaign trail.
In the late-’90s, Scott stepped down as chief executive of the company after it was accused of defrauding Medicare. The company eventually settled for $1.7 billion.
At one event, Scott was asked directly: If you aren’t to blame, who is?
David Hunt, a political reporter for the Jacksonville Times Union who has covered several of Scott’s campaign events and interviewed the candidate, wrote: “Scott’s response went on for two minutes and 48 seconds. He started by talking about the expense of advertising. ...Then he said politicians need to be held accountable for their actions. He even talked about a health-care project he’d sponsored in Kenya.”
But he didn’t directly answer the question.
That also was true of a radio interview Scott did with WOKV, a conservative-leaning news radio station in Jacksonville. When asked about HCA, Scott went to his battle-tested line about mistakes.
“If I get asked, I answer the question,” he said. “I tell people, look, you know, people made mistakes. When you are the CEO of a company you have got to take responsibility. And I do.
“... In business you learn lessons. You know mistakes get made. You change. You learn lessons. In government, you make mistakes and nothing happens.”
Rich Jones, the station’s news director, then followed up more pointedly, pressing Scott on both what happened and what lessons he learned.
Jones: “Did you not know what was going on? Were you not involved in the auditing process enough? What were the lessons you learned through that?”
Scott: “Well, you know, I built a company from scratch with my life savings. We went from two hospitals to 343 hospitals, 135 surgery centers. A little over, I think, one out of 425 Americans worked at the company. It’s a big company. Your job as CEO is to just keep making everything better and better and better. You can’t know everything. You just do the best job you can and just keep fixing things.”
Jones: “So did it get too big? Did you get lost in the shuffle there or lose some control over the company?”
Scott: “No. No the company did a great job ...”
Jones: “A mistake like that in a state the size of Florida means real big things. So what lessons can you then learn that you could bring to the table? What was the No. 1 thing you can learn the most?”
Scott: “You’ve got to look at everything and keep surrounding yourself with better and better people and just keep anticipating the problems. That’s what you learn as you build businesses. That’s what everybody learns in life. That’s clearly what you learn as you build a big company.”
While he’s stayed on message when talking about the fraud case, one question about his time at HCA went in a different direction. At a talk he gave to the executive committee of the Collier County GOP, a female in the audience asked Scott if HCA peformed abortions and if that meant he profited from abortions. A short clip on YouTube, run as part of an ad sponsored by the McCollum camp, shows Scott giving this response:
“Our company, when we purchased hospitals, you know the way we started our company is we bought hospitals,” he said. “So we were basically subject to whatever the medical staff had set up before we went in.”
Gulf oil spill
In several interviews, Scott has mentioned that he is in favor of continued oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. And that he’s also a big proponent of nuclear energy.
In May, Scott told WPLG-TV in Miami that drilling in the Gulf was part of a plan for the country to be energy independent and that safely drilling was a possibility.
“Absolutely, we have to become energy independent, financial security or national security, we have to become energy independent,” he said. “Now we have to look at nuclear, we have to look at alternative fuels and we have to do offshore drilling, but we have to do it safe.”
Scott has been open on the campaign trail about his desire to expand drilling in the Gulf. At a major campaign event hosted by the Tampa Bay Young Republicans on May 25, he said it was crucial, but needed to be done safely.
“If there’s oil down there, we have to figure out how we can drill for it. But we have to create safeguards. I believe we can,” the St. Petersburg Times quoted him as saying.
When questioned about it by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Scott said he supported giving Florida’s governor and three Cabinet members the authority to decide on drilling projects.
“To give the Cabinet the authority? Sure,” Scott said. “I absolutely do believe in that. ... I think when you get that authority, you’ve got to be careful. If they are going to do it, you have to hold them accountable for any mistakes they make and you are going to make sure it’s safe.”
He’s also said in several interviews that he believes the first priority now should be cleaning up the spill and then worrying about who should take responsibility.
One way Scott has differentiated himself from McCollum is to strongly support bringing to Florida an illegal immigration law similar to Arizona’s controversial new law, in which law enforcement officers can ask about a person’s immigration status.
Early in his campaign, Scott made the difference in his position a centerpiece of his TV commercials.
“It really caught McCollum off guard,” said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at University of Florida in Gainesville.
While McCollum has tried to stem any rising tide against him by saying that he believes Florida’s laws already are stringent enough, Scott has continued to hammer home immigration as one of his top issues.
Even in Miami, home to a huge immigrant population, Scott held firm to his stance on immigration.
“If you are here illegally and you are stopped for doing something wrong, you should be deported,” he said in an interview with WFOR-TV in Miami.
Scott told WOFL-TV in Orlando that he wants to enact Arizona’s law immediately.
“Absolutely,” Scott said. “As governor, I intend to make sure the federal government does its job. We need to secure borders, we need to come up with a legal immigration policy, but if you’re violating our laws and you should be asked if you’re legal, and if you’re not legal you should leave our country.”
WFOR’s Gary Nelson pushed Scott about his stance, asking him if he was willing to risk a similar backlash to that of Arizona in a state buoyed by tourism.
“You are ready to alienate half the world and risk half the world boycotting the state of Florida?” Nelson asked.
“Most Americans believe in legal immigration,” Scott replied. “Most Americans believe that if you are violating our laws you should be asked if you are legal.”
MORE DAILY NEWS COVERAGE ON RICK SCOTT