Florida’s Unpopular Governor Retools His Image

One thing you can say about Florida’s economy: It’s not quite as bad as it was a year ago.

When the state’s new governor, Republican Rick Scott took office, Florida faced a $3.5 billion budget shortfall. A year later, Scott is working with the legislature to close a still-daunting $2 billion budget gap.

But Scott has another challenge: overcoming his image as one of the nation’s most unpopular governors.

Private Sector Background

Scott is a smart, but low-key, former hospital CEO — a person comfortable with big decisions but not necessarily big crowds.

After a year in office, Floridians are still getting to know Scott. He was a virtual unknown when he jumped into the governor’s race. The former head of the nation’s largest hospital chain, he spent more than $70 million of his own money to get elected.

Now, the former outsider is Tallahassee’s most powerful insider. Republican lobbyist and fundraiser Brian Ballard worked to oppose Scott in the primary but now has become one of his biggest fans.

“He doesn’t care about politics,” Ballard says. “He cares about governing.”

It’s not just that Scott doesn’t care about politics. It’s almost a foreign language.

A conservative who was elected with strong Tea Party support, he convened a Tea Party rally to announce his first state budget. It was a budget that cut billions of dollars from education, the environment and benefits for public employees in a state that was already reeling from the recession and housing collapse.

State Sen. Paula Dockery, a Republican, says while the budget pleased the Tea Party, it alienated many others.

“He went after police, firefighters, corrections officers, teachers. And those are large numbers of people,” she says. “And they felt that he was more interested in an ideology than in caring about the people who have been protecting us on the streets and teaching our kids.”

Slightly Better Approval Ratings

Scott has some of the lowest approval ratings of any governor, although in recent months, those numbers have edged up slightly.

If Scott is winning over some Floridians, one reason may be his new style. Gone are the suit and tie. Instead Scott now wears open-collar shirts. And he’s begun engaging with the media, even sitting down with editorial boards around the state — something he rejected as a candidate.

“I think he’s really tried to convey that he is more of a man of the people as opposed to a multimillion-dollar executive,” says Daniel Smith is a political science professor at the University of Florida.

Scott has also adjusted his ambitious agenda. In his State of the State address, he said he learned from his travels around the state that education is very important to Floridians. And so, a year after announcing more than a billion dollars in cuts to education spending, Scott told legislators he wants to put much of it back.

“I ask you again to send me a budget that significantly increases state funding for education,” he said. “This is the single most important decision we can make today for Florida’s future.”

Caring About ‘Stockholders’

Scott has rejected any tax increases. To find the money, he’s looking for big cuts in Medicaid payments to hospitals, cuts he’s already being forced to defend.

“We have a $1.7 billion budget deficit,” he said. “I wish we didn’t. I wish we had a surplus. I hope sometime while I’m in office we have a surplus. We need to fund education. It’s the right thing to do. And Medicaid has been growing. So, you’ve got to change how you do things.”

In his first year, Scott signed many controversial bills. One requires drug testing for all welfare recipients. Another bans pediatricians and other doctors from talking to their patients about guns. Yet another bill changes voting rules in a way that, the League of Women Voters and other groups say, will suppress voting by minorities, young people and the elderly.

All those laws, and several more, are currently held up in the courts. To some, that might be a sign of overreaching, but Smith says not to Scott.

“I really think Gov. Scott doesn’t care all that much about what the courts are going to say,” Smith says. “He’s coming from a CEO mentality, and CEOs don’t really listen to many people, except, occasionally, the stockholders.”

In this case, the stockholders are Florida voters. Scott’s just completed his first year in office. That leaves him three years to win over skeptics and make good on his pledge to rebuild the state’s economy.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.