Rick Scott's midterm: Criticized Naples Republican governor defends record

Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott

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— Two years ago when Rick Scott completed his improbable rise from novice politician to governor of Florida, the state had a 10.9 percent unemployment rate.

Florida was reeling from an economic downturn. Homes across the state were in foreclosure. More than 1 million people weren't working.

A career businessman from Naples, Scott promised to fix it. He spent months trying to convince Florida voters he was the jobs candidate and — after a long, often brutal campaign that saw him attacked both within his own party and by Democrats — Floridians gave him a chance to prove it.

Now, Scott is midway through his four-year term. The state's unemployment rate in November was 8.1 percent and the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the number of people without a job had dropped to about 759,000.

But Scott, now 60 and entering his third year in the governor's mansion, isn't getting showered with affection. His approval rating hovers around 36 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in December, and 52 percent of the 1,261 Floridians polled said they don't think Scott deserves a second term.

But that isn't keeping Scott from running.

The Naples Republican told the Daily News in a recent interview that he has accomplished exactly what he set out to do when he ran for office and doesn't plan to change as he gears up for re-election.

"It's nice that the things I ran on, I was able to get through the Legislature and it's working," he said over a cup of tea and a muffin during a Fort Myers stop. "Everything that I have tried has been working."

Not so, his detractors say: Scott has done more harm than good the past two years. That thought, combined with Scott's consistently low approval ratings, has Floridians gearing up for what could be another long, grueling gubernatorial campaign in 2014.

Be effective before being popular

Being the most popular guy in the state isn't what's most important to Scott. Being the most effective is.

Scott ran on a platform heavy on job creation. His campaign slogan was "Let's Get to Work," and in his first year in office he toured the state doing the jobs Floridians do every day to get a feel for what residents go through.

When asked whether job-approval numbers — which have averaged about 36 percent over the two-year period, according to the Talking Points Memo poll tracker — mattered, Scott said he's more focused on doing what Floridians need than what makes him popular.

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"Coming from business, what your job is every day is (to) solve customers' needs," he said. "I ran a specific campaign and I was elected to do that. That's what I'm going to do, and I know that's what Floridians care about because I talk to them every day."

Scott said more than 200,000 private-sector jobs have been created. Unemployment is down and the state is inching toward his goal of creating 700,000 jobs in seven years.

But some argue that the jobs created have come at the cost of well-paying state jobs that Scott eliminated through an effort to downsize government. The state cut 4,529 jobs during the 2011 legislative session, about half as many as Scott proposed in his first budget in early 2011.

Those were "essentially middle-class jobs" that haven't been replaced in the private sector, said Susannah Randolph, executive director of the Florida Watch Action League.

"He was bragging about private-sector jobs, but those are largely hourly," said Randolph, whose organization is behind the Pink Slip Rick campaign. "You're replacing solid middle-class jobs, the kind of jobs that let people have confidence ... with jobs that are hourly jobs, that don't include benefits that don't have pension plans."

Scott said the state is recovering, and steps he's taken — such as working to reduce the business tax — have made Florida more desirable to companies looking to relocate. Those measures will allow the state to diversify and eventually bring in more high-paying jobs for qualified Floridians, he said.

"If you look at when I started ... the state was on a big downward trajectory," he said. "Now, what I focus on every day is to get the other 700,000 people that want a job, a job."

Scott contends the state must pay attention to what business owners want, which he said he has been able to do through foreign business development missions, conversations with corporate executives and his own experience in the private sector.

Businesses care about taxes, regulations, permitting, transportation, an educated workforce and government's attitude, he said, adding: "I tried to focus on all of those."

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From outsider to insider

When Scott announced his plan to run for governor in April 2010, the response from many political watchers was: Rick Scott, who?

A political outsider, Scott had never run for office before and kept a low profile in the political establishment. Now, he often does national television interviews and has media interviews almost every day.

The shift from outsider to insider has changed Scott — some say for the better.

"I would say the governor is in a better position now," said Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples. "He's been able to establish relationships with the Legislature and with various people in Tallahassee. When he arrived, he didn't have any of those, or many of those, relationships. But relationships matter."

Scott said he sees the value of an insider but isn't planning to change his outsider point of view now that he has entrenched in the politics of being a politician.

"I'm going to run on things I've run on before: holding government accountable, focus on how we make this the best place to do business, how we make this the best place for your child to get an education, how we get our universities and state colleges to work with business so people can get jobs," he said.

What could change is how his campaign is funded. As an outsider, Scott used his vast wealth to finance his campaign. Now, he can tap into the Republican Party's resources — both the manpower and dollars.

But Susan MacManus, a political science professor at University of South Florida in Tampa, said no matter what, Scott will have an uphill battle the next two years as he balances work and a campaign.

"There's no one that thinks this is going to be easy street, that this is going to be a typical election," she said.

Despite their vastly different political beliefs, MacManus said Scott's first term has similarities to President Barack Obama's.

"In general, a lot of what he experienced, the president had, too. The chief executive takes a lot of hits (for the economy)," she said. "The expectation is that if you're the boss, you deal with the problem."

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Low approval ratings aren't Scott's only concern looking ahead toward 2014.

Former Republican- turned-independent Gov. Charlie Crist became a Democrat after campaigning for Obama. Crist is considered a possible gubernatorial candidate.

Scott isn't stressing about 2014. In two months, he'll ring in his third legislative session, at which legislators will again be asked to produce a balanced budget and take up issues such as pension reform and school funding. He's getting ready to release his proposed budget and wants to continue focusing on what Florida families care about, such as making sure there's more money for the state's colleges and universities.

Two years into his term, he has few regrets. He wishes everything the state has done had happened faster, and that those 700,000-plus people who want a job could find one.

His biggest regret, he joked as he reflected back, is in not pushing sooner for grandchildren — Scott has a 13-month-old grandson.

"It would've been fun if they had them even earlier," he joked, "because I'm having so much fun."

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Comments » 1

August8 writes:

Far to tuff and over-reaching on state and FRS Employee's, he needs to adjust and correct in that department. Many other things are positive and worth while.

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