Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s Unfortunate Opportunity

Mar 14, 2013 by

It’s never good news for a governor and his party when a lieutenant governor resigns under fallout from a federal probe on racketeering. It’s even more damaging when it involves gambling, the Republican Party and previous headlines from the lieutenant governor’s office.

Personally, I’m sad to see Jennifer Carroll resign from office. After a 20-year career in the U.S. Navy, she served in the Florida House and is well liked by her colleagues. However, her resignation is probably best for her and her family and a political necessity for the Republican Party and its struggling governor.

After two years in office, Gov. Rick Scott has spent the last few months reinventing himself. Now, with Carroll’s departure, he has the opportunity to transform that office as well.

Scott was the tea party darling in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, barely beating then-Attorney General Bill McCollum by using an anti-establishment-themed campaign. While many thought he would pivot toward the middle in the general election, he showed no signs of doing so and picked Carroll, a conservative supporter of his primary rival, for his lieutenant governor.

Carroll, an attractive black woman with military and legislative experience from Northeast Florida, provided a balance to Scott, the white male outsider and a political novice with a cloud of suspicion of fraudulent activity surrounding his days as a healthcare executive.

Scott and his political experts rarely made a political or policy decision without testing it or carefully weighing its benefits/disadvantages. Carroll offered the ticket the potential of healing the rift with McCollum supporters, geographic reach into Jacksonville, and an appeal to women and minorities without alienating the tea party, the NRA, conservatives or the religious right.

After two legislative sessions, the governor was struggling with low poll numbers. Voters not only rejected his one-sided policies but also him personally. With reelection less than two years away, Scott has belatedly begun that pivot toward the center.

After angering teachers with his support of education cuts, Senate Bill 6 and the parent trigger bill, he is now wooing them with $2,500 bonuses and the possibility of less testing.

After fighting President Barack Obama and healthcare reform, he is now supportive of expanding Medicaid.

After signing the massive elections reform package, he is now leading the charge to undo many of its changes.

With a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office, he has a tremendous opportunity to continue his makeover and send a message to voters. But with that campaign opportunity comes great political risk.

A lieutenant governor has no defined role or responsibilities other than to be prepared to serve as governor if the governor is unable to do so. This individual should be intelligent, knowledgeable, articulate, ethical and a good manager of people.

Scott did not utilize his lieutenant governor to the extent that former governors like Jeb Bush did. A lieutenant governor can be as effective or influential as the governor will allow. Scott seems to value loyalty and obscurity.

So where does he go from here? Does he pick a lieutenant governor from a particular region like the bellwether I-4 corridor, where his probable Democratic opponent will come from?

Will he once again focus on a particular gender or race? Does he focus on who can help in a primary or a general election? What about the timing of his replacement decision?

If Scott is worried about a primary challenge, he will focus on an appointee who appeals to the tea party, the religious right and the NRA. If he is worried about the general election, his choice will be one that appeals to teachers, law enforcement, moderates, Democrats and independents.

Scott could choose someone as a temporary seat holder and another to appear on the ballot for his reelection attempt. The temporary appointee could be someone he perceives as safe and non-threatening — someone like former House Speaker Allan Bense or former Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings.

The governor announced he wouldn’t make his appointment until after the current legislative session ends in May. Strategically, this would allow him to make friends and allies with legislators who might be interested in the appointment. You can never have too many legislative friends during session to willingly help with your agenda.

The other advantage of waiting is to allow adequate time to vet potential candidates.

My advice to the governor is to focus on the qualifications of the individual, with little regard to race, gender or geography:

— Allow the lieutenant governor to be very visible and engaged.

— Use his/her strengths to complement the governor’s. He shouldn’t fear being overshadowed.

— Above all, the next lieutenant governor needs to be squeaky clean.

The voters are skeptical of elected officials and are tired of reading about corruption and conflicts of interest. Scott’s best pick is one that has no appearance of impropriety.

Scott once campaigned on ethics reform. Now is his chance to act on it.

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