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FL's Politician of the Year: Refurbished Rick Scott

If only the Rick Scott we got to know during this past election year had been the one who first entered the Governor’s Mansion in 2011.

Remember that guy? The former health-care exec with a chip on his shoulder who bragged he was a Tea Partier before the Tea Party was cool. He was the novice politician who spent his first six months in office doing his best to drive his approval rating to its worst. He was callous, oblivious, secretive and tone deaf. And that’s just what people who liked him said of Scott.

Critics called Scott the worst governor in Florida’s modern era. Some said he was the worst governor in the entire country.

Rick Scott couldn’t even throw out the first pitch at a baseball game without being booed off the field. It was that bad. And it remained that way for much of Scott’s first term.

In a blistering editorial that took the measure of Scott’s tenure, the Tampa Bay Times wrote that “Scott’s soulless approach to governing is turning the Sunshine State into a cold-hearted place, where the warm promise of a fresh start and a fair shake are fading fast.” The newspaper labeled him the “Tin Man,” a chief executive who shows no heartfelt connection to the state, appreciation for its values or compassion for its residents.

It was not soon after that editorial was published that something miraculous happened, as if the Wizard of Oz himself gifted Scott with a heart-shaped watch to remind him of not only the need to demonstrate an affection for this state and its residents, but also that the clock was ticking: If Scott didn’t change his ways, the people would change their minds.

Whether it be election-year politics or a genuine change of heart (or both), Rick Scott circa 2014 is so much different than that brash outsider to whom Floridians were first introduced.

It’s this Rick Scott who, to borrow from a Dr. Seuss tale told often this time of year, saw his small heart grow three sizes. And this is why Scott is my choice for Florida politician of 2014, succeeding last year’s honoree, Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, and 2012’s winner, Will Weatherford.

Scott is the clear-cut winner for this past year not only because he defeated his Democratic challenger, Charlie Crist, in a nine-figure statewide election, but because Scott also course-corrected enough to make himself re-electable. In doing so, Scott has changed the first line of his obituary from “former chief executive of a health-care company forced to pay a billion- dollar fine” to “two-term Florida governor.”

For the better part of a year, perhaps longer, Scott has done almost everything his critics have asked him to do.

Told he wasn’t doing enough for education, the governor restored much of the funding he and Republican lawmakers foolishly cut. Then he doubled down with an across-the-board pay increase proposal for every teacher.

Urged to accept the benefits of Obamacare, Scott asked the Legislature to accept federal dollars to expand Medicaid. Gov. Scott sided with moderate Republican lawmakers who called for a tuition break for undocumented students.

Even on the “little things,” Scott more and more did what was right, at least what is considered right by the editorial boards that have never hesitated to criticize him. For example, in the previous legislative session, House and Senate budget negotiators agreed to spend $36.3 million next year to provide services to hundreds of people with developmental disabilities who have been stuck on a waiting list. This was a proposal first backed by Gov. Scott.

Scott’s seemingly innumerable critics can point to a long list of issues on which the governor remains on the wrong side of the people’s interests – and history – such as his resistance to the forward march of marriage equality. He’s too closely aligned with many of the state’s special interests. His administration remains one in which the light of open government is swallowed by the darkness of secrecy.

Yet, on the one issue that matters most to Florida voters – the economy – Scott deserves credit for the turnaround taking place in the Sunshine State.

Florida’s unemployment rate currently resides below 6 percent, the lowest it has been since fall of 2008, as the state and national recovery from the recession continued. Undoubtedly, this is due to an improving national economy, but if one wants to give credit to President Barack Obama for that, you have to give credit to Scott for what’s happening in Florida.

The unemployment picture is dramatically different from just over four years ago when, right after Scott was elected, the jobless rate in the state spiked to 12 percent.

During 2010 Scott campaigned on his “7-7-7” plan – or seven steps to create 700,000 jobs over seven years. The plan called for deep tax cuts, eliminating regulations that he said were hampering business growth and steep cuts in government spending.

But even now, as Scott declares victory for overseeing the creation of those 700,000 jobs, he remains a target.

“Scott is starting his second term the same as his first,” said Joshua Karp, a spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party. “With lies that don’t help the hundreds of thousands of Floridians who can’t find a job because of Tallahassee Republicans who put the special interests first and middle-class families last.”

The trouble for Scott is two-fold: One, he was never forgiven for the scorched-earth campaign he ran in 2010 to win the Governor’s Mansion. As if that first impression wasn’t bad enough, Scott’s first year in office was politically disastrous.

Just consider this: For most of his first term, Scott at his most popular has never been as high in his approval ratings as the low-water mark for Ohio governor John Kasich — a fellow big-state, strict conservative also elected in 2010.

I can’t believe I am about to write this, but I don’t know if Floridians have been fair to Rick Scott. Yes, he won re-election, but that was with a clothespin pinching many voters’ noses.

The reality is Scott is doing – more so now than ever – what he was elected and re-elected to do. 

Peter Schorsch is a new media publisher and political consultant based in St. Petersburg, Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

This piece was reprinted by the Columbia County Observer with permission or license.

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