ALTAMONTE SPRINGS – Gov. Rick Scott is either inspiring very high expectations as he takes on the huge challenge of bolstering Florida’s still sagging economy – or rock bottom low expectations among Democrats who are dismissing the new Republican governor as an extremist – or worse.
During a recent debate at the Hilton Hotel in Altamonte Springs, former Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson and conservative radio talk show host Doug Guetzloe demonstrated the contrasting views of the new governor: either someone who, as a political outsider, could end politics as usual in the state, or as an unethical businessman who seems likely to accomplish very little.
Asked about the new governor, Grayson seized on the scandal that dogged Scott during both the Republican primary — when Scott narrowly defeated the party favorite, former state Attorney General Bill McCollum — and the general election, when he narrowly passed by Democrat Alex Sink.
“What we have is we have a crook as our governor,” Grayson said.
Grayson was referring to the fact that in 1987, Scott helped found the the Columbia Hospital Corporation, which later merged with Hospital Corporation of America in 1989 to form Columbia/HCA. It would go on to become the largest private for-profit health care company in the U.S.
Scott was forced to resign as its chief executive in 1997 following an investigation into the company’s Medicare billing practices. The company would later admit to having committed fourteen felonies and paid the federal government more than $600 million in fraudulent Medicare claims.
Scott, who went on to become a venture capitalist, made his first run for public office last year when he launched his bid for governor.
“This is someone who pled the fifth seventy-four times while under oath,” Grayson said of Scott’s role in the investigation.
But Grayson, who was among four Democratic congressman from Florida who got defeated in 2010, said it was just a very rough year for his party, and the hostile political environment allowed even a weak candidate like Scott to get over the finish line.
“It’s shocking to me that someone like that could run for dog catcher and win, but we had a strange year when if you had an R by your name, you won,” he said.
He also joked that Scott may have been motivated to run for the office out of concerns about future scandals.
“The idea is he wanted to run for governor and then pardon himself,” Grayson said.
On a less humorous note, Grayson said he worries that the governor’s call for deep spending cuts to programs like health care and education, and his socially conservative agenda, was nothing to laugh at.
“This is someone taking really extreme ideological decisions,” Grayson said. “I think we’re all going to suffer because of it.”
Guetzloe said the end result of the governor’s race – Scott won with 49 percent of the vote to Sink’s 48 percent, and defeated her by just 68,000 votes out of more than 5 million cast – surprised many political pundits who had initially assumed that Sink was the favorite.
“Alex Sink is an honest person and a hard working person,” Guetzloe said. But it was simply the wrong year to be running as a Democrat, he added.
Guetzloe noted that he supported Scott in the GOP primary, because he wanted a political outsider and fresh face, and not a longtime politician favored by party bosses. McCollum had first been elected to Congress in 1980 and spent more than three decades in public office.
“I supported Rick Scott in the primary over Bill McCollum, and for a lot of us that was ‘It’s time for us to bury Bill McCollum,’ “ Guetzloe said. “To me, in the primary he was the best choice.”
Guetzloe said he was also motivated by Scott’s opposition to building a high speed rail system in Central Florida, and to the governor’s support for cutting taxes to spur economic development. In the last legislative session, the Republican-controlled Legislature and former Gov. Charlie Crist agreed to hike taxes and fees, while also accepting federal stimulus money, to close the state’s budget gap.
It’s not clear, Guetzloe said, where those budget cuts will come from, since the state is facing a $3 billion drop in revenue.
“He is still a completely blank slate,” Guetzloe said of Scott. “He had refused to meet with any editorial boards in the state of Florida. The media in Tallahassee have basically been put off by him.”
Grayson said his own expectations for Scott are as low as they can get. He quoted former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, following his loss in the 1982 race for governor, to sum up his view of Florida’s new top elected official.
“He (Koch) said the people have spoken,” Grayson said, “and now they will be punished.”
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