Florida Gov. Rick Scott is not afraid to make enemies.
The Republican came into office with a bang in 2010, knocking off the party establishment’s pick in the primary and winning a tough general election, all the while overcoming some very tough headlines.
The day after the primary, Scott reportedly dressed down Republican Governors Association Chairman Haley Barbour for Barbour’s decision to denounce an ad Scott had been running against his primary opponent, Attorney General Bill McCollum.
“Haley, you cost me more than $7 million,” Scott told Barbour repeatedly in a phone conversation, according to a report Monday in the Miami Herald.
The exchange is characteristic of Scott’s ascent and, now, his governing style. Unafraid to ruffle feathers even in his own party, Scott is emerging as a one-of-a-kind chief executive in the year of the GOP governor.
Ever since Election Day, it has been go-time for Scott, who came to the job with an unapologetic agenda that some say would make even Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) look timid.
But while Walker has clashed with unions and Democrats, Scott has run into problems with his own party. And with a tough budget fight ramping up in the Sunshine State, the unconventional governor’s style and bold proposals will be increasingly put to the test.
Scott faces a $3.6 billion budget shortfall, but he also wants to cut nearly $2 billion in taxes. He wants to cut $1.75 billion in education funding, get rid of 8,500 state workers, and require the remaining state workers to pay 5 percent of their salaries toward their retirement.
Even such an ambitious agenda would appear doable, especially since Scott came into office with a new governor’s dream – Republican super-majorities in both chambers of the state legislature.
But getting on the same page as those legislators, particularly in the powerful state Senate, is very much a work in progress. And that’s putting it kindly. From the week after his election until now, Republican state legislators have balked at Scott’s proposals, and now that we’re headed toward the biggest battle of all – the budget – observers are watching anxiously to see what transpires.
Already, Scott has clashed with Republican state legislators by selling two of the state’s airplanes, trying to defeat a bill that would create a database to track prescription drug fraud and declining $2.4 billion in federal stimulus funds for high-speed rail between Orlando and Tampa. And in every case, say Republicans on the ground in Florida, the state legislators were blindsided by Scott’s actions.
Florida Republican operatives say privately that relations are quite strained between some legislators and the governor. Even as Scott and most legislators are on the same page much of the time, when they aren’t, the situation has been handled poorly.
“They’ve told the governor’s staff, don’t even bother come asking anything for the governor, because you’re not going to get it,” said one GOP operative who approves of Scott’s policy goals but said he has to work on messaging.
The communications problems have also been evident in Scott’s dealings with the Republicans outside Florida and with press.
During the campaign, Scott overcame many tough stories – including about how the health care company he ran agreed to settle a $1.7 billion fraud case — to win the race. The most recent example of tough relations between Scott and the press came this week, when the press was excluded from a Scott event at the last minute.
“During the campaign, the press was very aggressive with him,” said state Senate President Mike Haridopolos (R), who is running for U.S. Senate. “I’m sure the lingering effects are there. But he’s getting out in the public a lot.”
Other Republicans blame amateur political and press staffs – including many aides who came to their jobs after joining the insurgent campaign and are dealing with one of the toughest political dynamics in the country.
Justin Sayfie, a well-known Republican-aligned political analyst and former aide to Gov. Jeb Bush (R), pointed out that in his first months in office, Bush also clashed with a powerful and Republican-led state legislature. Bush vetoed a record amount of spending in his first six months and pushed forward with an ambitious education agenda that didn’t suit everybody.
After four years of the more deferential Gov. Charlie Crist, Sayfie said, it’s a matter of getting back to the state’s usual combative relationship between the governor and the legislature.
“We’re different; we’re special,” Sayfie said. “We do have a tradition in Florida of having a weak governor.”
But even with that in mind, Scott brings a brand of headstrong leadership that is uncharacteristic of even the most ambitious governors.
He came to the job pledging to govern like the executive he was rather than the politician he has become.
It’s been a rough application so far, and while Republicans in the state remain cautiously optimistic about Scott’s goals, a tough budget situation should put Scott’s leadership style to the test very early in his administration.
And this could be a governor we’re talking about for a long time to come.