Florida Governor Snubbed by Romney After Political Gaffes

Florida Governor Rick Scott keeps alienating the people he’s trying to befriend.

The Republican’s effort to win support from Cuban-Americans resulted in threats of a lawsuit. At a lunch to charm black lawmakers, he offended them. He turned a goodwill mission into comedy-show fodder when he greeted Spain’s king by asking about the monarch’s politically sensitive elephant hunt.

The governor’s gaffes, along with an approval rating that hasn’t gone above 41 percent in Quinnipiac University polls, may hurt his party’s presidential contender, Mitt Romney. Florida is one of the most competitive electoral battlegrounds, with the past three presidential races decided by 5 percentage points or less. Romney hasn’t campaigned with Scott.

“Rick Scott doesn’t seem to have any political skills at all,” said Tom Slade, the former co-chairman of Scott’s campaign and ex-chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. “I’d give him a B for governing. I’d give him an A for strangeness.”

Adding to Scott’s misery: His office is facing a criminal investigation over missing e-mail; the federal government is suing the state over purging voters from the rolls; and the governor recently hired his third chief of staff in 18 months.

Scott, 59, moved to Florida about a decade ago while he was running his own private-equity firm. A former chief executive officer of HCA Holdings Inc., a Nashville, Tennessee-based hospital operator, he was forced out amid a Medicare fraud investigation that resulted in criminal charges against the company. Scott, who wasn’t charged, said he did nothing wrong.

Transition to Office

Scott has struggled with the transition from the boardroom to the governorship of the nation’s fourth-most-populous state, said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

“Public relations is very important to your success,” MacManus said. “He’s had a serious problem and has had to have a major repair job.”

The governor’s approval rating is 39 percent, according to a poll today from Quinnipiac University. That’s down from 41 percent on May 24, his best in any 12 surveys from the Hamden, Connecticut school, and up from 29 percent a year earlier.

The state Republican party has tried to improve his ratings with nine weeks of television ads that started running in March in four cities, highlighting Scott’s record. The state party also has paid for recorded calls to voters, websites and Facebook ads promoting Scott since he’s been in office.

Helping Obama

Scott’s unpopularity may help President Barack Obama’s re-election effort, said Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“Obama’s more competitive in Florida right now than I would have expected,” Jensen said in an e-mail. “The damage Scott has done to the Republican brand is part of that.”

Romney’s staff has concluded there’s no benefit in appearing with Scott, said two campaign advisers who asked for anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the matter.

“The safe thing is for he and Romney to go their separate ways,” said Slade, the former Republican official.

Alberto Martinez, a Romney spokesman, declined to comment on the two appearing together. Scott is “implementing a pro-growth agenda despite the challenges placed in his way by President Obama’s failed economic policies,” Martinez said.

Scott declined to be interviewed for this story. His spokesman Brian Burgess, defended the governor’s record.

“Reasonable people can debate governing style all they want, but when it comes to substance, Governor Scott is turning the state around and is delivering exactly what he promised,” Burgess said.

Keynote Speech

The governor hoped to deliver a keynote speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa in August, he told the Fort Myers News-Press last month. So far, Scott is being offered only a talk at a welcoming event for media and delegates, said Al Austin, head of the convention’s Host Committee.

Scott and Romney have distinctly different messages on the economy. Scott travels around the state talking about improvements, while Romney’s supporters run television ads in Florida saying unemployment remains high.

“Florida is turning around under Governor Scott,” Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry said.

Since Scott took office on January 4, 2011, shares of Florida-based companies rose about 10.5 percent through yesterday, according to the Bloomberg State Index of Florida. Companies in the index include NextEra Energy Inc. and CSX Corp. During the same period, the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index increased 6.9 percent.

Unemployment Rate

Florida’s 8.6 percent unemployment rate is down from 11.1 percent in December 2010, before Scott took office. The current rate is ninth highest among U.S. states and remains above the 8.2 percent national average. The state’s percentage of troubled mortgages leads the nation, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Scott pledged to create 700,000 jobs in seven years -- in addition to those that economists projected would be added by normal employment growth. Scott backed away from that promise in October, telling reporters he would count expected growth.

In March, he sent letters to 100 New York City chief executives asking them to relocate or expand in Florida. Another round went out to France last month. No company has moved because of the letters, said Stuart Doyle, a spokesman for Enterprise Florida, the state’s economic-development arm.

Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown, a Democrat, credits the governor for helping preserve jobs when an out-of-state company purchased a local grocery chain.

Tea Party

“I’ve been able to work with Governor Scott,” Brown said. “He’s focused on jobs.”

Scott is a former Tea Party activist who has pushed the Republican-controlled Legislature to cut spending, threatening to veto any spending plan that increased revenue.

The governor’s priorities appear out of sync with voters, said state Senator Paula Dockery, a Lakeland Republican. She cited a measure the governor persuaded the Legislature to approve that forced state workers to contribute to their pensions, his veto of money for rape-crisis centers and support for spending $5 million on a Sarasota rowing facility.

“He doesn’t seem to understand what the average Floridian is going through,” Dockery said.

The U.S. Justice Department sued Florida this month over a policy backed by Scott that removes noncitizens from voter rolls. The lawsuit says the state violated election law and relied on inaccurate information. Scott said the state is fighting voter fraud.

Cuba Controversy

In a separate matter, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating e-mail that went missing from Scott’s transition, a potential violation of public records law.

Then, there are Scott’s personal missteps.

Last month, he visited Miami to woo Cuban-American residents, the state’s largest Hispanic voting bloc. He was there to sign legislation blocking governments in Florida from hiring companies that do business in Cuba or Syria.

Among those joining him was U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, who rode in an elevator with Scott and reviewed what the governor planned to say.

Scott’s talking points said the federal government would have to enforce the measure. Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, said in an interview that he told the governor he strongly objected to that. Scott stood silent, he said.

Scott signed the bill -- and dropped the remarks that prompted Diaz-Balart’s complaint. The governor won his applause.

Elephant Question

Then, after leaving Miami, Scott sent a letter to Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner saying the law couldn’t be enforced.

U.S. Representative David Rivera, a Cuban-American, threatened Scott with a lawsuit and, two days later, Scott promised to enforce the law.

“His equivocating will plant a seed that maybe this guy can’t be as trusted,” said Paul George, a Miami Dade College professor who teaches Cuban-American history. “It’s in the back of the minds of a lot of people here.”

On May 22, Scott met with King Juan Carlos to invite him to Florida’s 500th anniversary celebration next year of the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, who led the first European expedition to the state. Scott entered the king’s office and immediately asked about his hunting expedition in Botswana.

“I’ve ridden elephants,” Scott said. “I’ve never tried to shoot one.”

The king earlier had to apologize for taking the jaunt as high unemployment and bad loans depressed Spain’s economy. A video of the exchange was played on Spanish comedy shows.

Scott apologized.

‘Public Housing’

Six weeks into office, Scott offended another group: black lawmakers. The setting was a governor’s mansion lunch. The black legislative caucus had complained Scott’s appointments lacked diversity. Scott, whose stepfather was a truck driver and mother was a store clerk, told members that he “grew up probably in the same situation as you guys.”

“I started school in public housing,” he said. “My dad had a sixth-grade education.”

Lawmakers said Scott made unfair assumptions about their backgrounds because of their skin color.

“I was offended,” said Representative Betty Reed. “It was disrespectful and assuming every black person grew up in the projects.”

Scott’s unpopularity has Democrats, who haven’t won a governor’s race in Florida since 1994, optimistic about 2014.

“If you’re a Democrat thinking you ever want to be governor, the next go-round is probably a good time to run,” said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, a Democrat.