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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Jan. 3, 201905:10 AM EST

Editorial: It’s time to give Rick Scott his due

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Scott’s “relentless discipline” was crucial to his winning four races and leading Florida’s economic turnaround.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

The wrapping paper is in the trash. Opened presents are still stacked under the tree. The relatives and friends are gone. You’re exhausted.

Finally, you have time to relax … maybe page through the Observer to see what has been happening locally. But probably the last thing you want to do is wade into an article about politics and politicians.

We all need a break. Got it.

Sorry, we’re going to do it anyway. It’s the time we traditionally have looked back at the past year’s events. And besides, no one else in Florida’s newspaper media will do what we’re about to do: Give outgoing Gov. Rick Scott and soon-to-be U.S. Sen. Rick Scott his due.

If you think through what he has accomplished since declaring his candidacy for governor in early 2010, it’s extraordinary. In all of Florida history, you will not find another individual who did what he has done.

Even if you dislike him — and there are at least 4,089,472 Floridians who don’t; they voted for Bill Nelson — you must at least be willing to acknowledge the following as extraordinary:

Without ever having run for office, he won three statewide elections and one primary election. Not an easy feat by a long shot. Florida is a huge state, geographically and culturally. People who have run statewide races for the first time will tell you how hard it is.

Tarnished CEO

Go back to April 2010. When Scott entered the Republican race for governor against Bill McCollum, then Florida’s attorney general and a 30-year Florida politician, it was only five months before the primary election. Few Floridians had ever heard of Scott, not a native Floridian; and those who had known him as the tarnished and ousted CEO of Columbia-HCA, the nation’s largest hospital chain and the company that was slapped with the largest fine in U.S. history — $1.7 billion — for Medicare fraud.

Suffice it to say, Scott’s opponents unleashed on his CEO tenure a relentless barrage of Tomahawk missiles, branding the ex-CEO as a crook, even though none of the charges were ever linked to him.

On paper, everything was against Scott beating McCollum: ousted, besmirched CEO; rookie politician; rich guy spending $60 million of his own money on the campaign; awkward in public political rallies. Rare is the business executive who wins his or her first run at statewide public office. Even Jeb Bush — a Miami businessman with a blue-blood political name — lost his first run for governor.

To the shock of all the experts, Scott beat McCollum — by 40,000 votes.

Then it was on to the general, against a popular state CFO, Democrat Alex Sink. Again, the experts expected Scott to lose, especially as Democrats turned up the attacks accusing Scott of being a Medicare crook. Before the election, polls placed Scott’s unfavorable rating near 50 percent.

To almost everyone’s surprise again, Scott beat Sink — by 61,550 votes, a 1.2 percent margin.

Four years later, in 2014, Scott faced another intense challenge, this time from Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist. Even though Crist switched parties, he remained popular, playing on his nice-guy, moderate, “I always fight for you” persona versus Scott’s perceived strident, cold persona (a misperceived persona, by the way).

Scott won again — by 64,145 votes, a 1 percent margin.

1 percent chance of winning

Then this past November, Scott faced his toughest race of all, challenging three-term incumbent, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

Seen by many as a gold-plated fixture of Florida politics, the epitome of a moderate with Florida’s needs at heart, Nelson first was elected to the Florida House in 1972. He served 12 years in the U.S. House, became Florida’s insurance commissioner for six years, and then was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000. 

Since then, no matter who tried from the Republican Party — U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, 2000; U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, 2006; or U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV, 2012 — none came close to beating Nelson.

Once again, Scott was not expected to win. On Oct. 22, one national poll had Nelson up by 5 percentage points.

Of course, we know the outcome. Scott once again did the unexpected and unlikely — by the thinnest of margins, 10,033 votes, a 0.12 percent margin.

Each of those election victories was an exceptional achievement. If, say, you would have predicted Scott’s chances of winning all three races, Joe Gruters, a longtime top official in the Republican Party of Florida, says he would have given Scott a 1 percent chance, a 20 percent chance of winning each one.

But Gruters and Rich Heffley, who worked in Jeb Bush’s administration and is a highly regarded Tallahassee-based lobbyist and strategist, attribute Scott’s victories to more than Scott spending $200 million of his own money on his campaigns. “That does help,” Gruters acknowledges.

But Heffley notes that in each of Scott’s races there was parity in how much each side spent. The difference, says Heffley, was Scott’s “relentless discipline.” Says Gruters: “He is the best candidate in the country to stay on message and stay focused on his agenda. The guy is an unbelievable machine.”

Gruters also credits Scott with revolutionizing political campaigns in Florida. Scott shunned the traditional model of volunteers and donors. Instead, true to his businessman-CEO core, Scott ran his campaigns as serious business enterprises that paid employees for results.

“He knew how many doors he needed to knock and how many calls were needed each day,” Gruters says. “With paid employees, he could guarantee certain outcomes. When you don’t have volunteers, you can have control.”

To be sure, Scott’s relentless, CEO approach to political campaigns were crucial to his victories. But here’s what also has set Scott apart from most of his political peers: Says Heffley: “Promises made, promises kept.” 

“Jobs, jobs, jobs,” Heffley says.

We all saw and heard him. That was his mantra — over and over and over. Every time a reporter asked him a question, Scott throughout his two terms as governor always emphasized his focus on trying to create an environment in Florida that results in more jobs.

Scott told us shortly after he began his first gubernatorial campaign that he honed his message to the three things that Floridians care about most: having a job, good education and low taxes. He always added two more ingredients: cut regulations and spending. 

Scott never veered from his No. 1 message: jobs.

The Capitol press corps chafed at Scott’s monotonous drumbeat, and especially scoffed at Scott when he promised that during his governorship Florida would add 700,000 jobs in seven years. At the time of this pronouncement, Florida’s economy was gasping with 11 percent unemployment. The big-city newspaper editorial writers and columnists all but laughed at Scott, creating for readers the impression there was no way Scott could deliver.

After seven years, Florida’s employment rolls had increased by 1,444,730 — two times more than Scott promised. After eight years, employment will have risen by 1,637,100 jobs. The unemployment rate is 3 percent. 

Last year, Scott sent to the Tampa Bay Times’ PolitiFact a list of 82 cuts in taxes and fees that had occurred during his tenure. And Scott reported recently Florida’s high school graduation rate reached a 15-year high, 86.1 percent, an increase of 3.8 percentage points over last year and 17.1 percent since the year before he took office.

Floridians know Scott alone is not responsible for the increase in graduation rates. Nor does a governor create jobs. But as the state’s CEO, the governor sets the tone and has more influence than anyone on creating the policies and climate that allows an economy to flourish. And as a CEO who saw firsthand the effects of taxes and regulations on business, Scott knew a relentless (there’s that word again) pursuit against those burdens was essential for his and Florida’s success.

Florida's top salesman

To that end, Scott, indisputably, served as Florida’s No. 1 salesman, constantly promoting Florida’s business climate throughout the United States and the world. Surely, many Floridians remember Scott personally traveling to high-tax states to encourage businesses to move to Florida. As top economic salesman, Scott stands as a model for all governors who want economic growth and jobs in their states.

Heffley credits Scott with one other attribute that ultimately helped him defeat Nelson. “He became Florida’s consoler in chief,” Heffley says.

You remember: He was everywhere before and after Hurricane Irma in 2017. And after Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico; after the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016; after the Parkland High School shooting in February; and before and after Hurricane Michael in October in the Panhandle, Scott always was on the scene.

In his eight years as governor, as politicians do with time, Scott became more at ease in public and with public speaking.

Heffley notes: “One of the things that really helped him, he learned to speak Spanish. That really helped with the Puerto Ricans in Orlando.”

You have to concede Scott still isn’t perceived by Floridians as a warm and fuzzy Charlie Crist. But those who have observed and worked with him know that whenever he’s one-on-one or working a room, he is down-to-earth and likable.

As Scott prepares for his next political challenge — that of being one of 100 senators and not in charge — he will leave the governor’s office with his critics ticking off long lists of what Scott didn’t do well. 

No one is perfect. But most Floridians are likely to remember Scott, not for his extraordinary election victories, but as the governor who set the tone, led Florida’s dramatic economic turnaround and did what so few politicians do: stayed focused on his promises and kept them. 

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