Friday’s gubernatorial debate started with fart powder, and it was all downhill from there.
Packets of the substance, along with whoopee cushions and folders marked “Alex Stinks,” were left for reporters in the Univision studio’s press area, almost as if to foreshadow the fracas to come. If Florida voters thought they had already witnessed the worst during the contentious GOP primary, they had best dig in.
Republican nominee Rick Scott’s primary message, repeated several times throughout the event, was that his 7-7-7 plan — to create 700,000 jobs in seven years through seven steps — would get the state back on economic track. “If we do all these things we will get the state back to work,” Scott said. “You look at the people that live in the state, the proximity to Central and South America, the expansion of the Panama Canal — this will be the state for job creation.”
His opponent, Democrat Alex Sink, set the tone of the debate with a takedown that was three charges rolled into one.
“Rick, I’ve been thinking a lot about your seven step plan,” Sink said. “Live in Florida just barely seven years, just barely long enough to qualify for being the governor. Take the fifth amendment 75 times so that you won’t incriminate yourself. And thirdly, spend $70 million of your own money so that you can catapult yourself right into the governors’s office. That’s your 7-7-7 plan.”
A few substantive policy issues did manage to sneak in between the cracks. Both candidates support a merit pay system for teachers, although they disagreed on the whether the GOP-led bill that was vetoed by Crist in April was a good solution.
The candidates were also asked about illegal immigration, an important topic for Univision’s Spanish-language audience. Sink supports increased penalties on businesses that knowingly hire illegal aliens, but didn’t offer further solutions. “We know that the federal government has failed us,” Sink said. “However, Florida is not Arizona.”
Scott, who was boosted in a tight primary by his strong support for Arizona’s immigration law, didn’t back down from that position. “We need to make sure that none of our law enforcement is ever put in the position that they’re even accused of any racial profiling. That’s wrong,” Scott said. “However, if you’re in our country and you get stopped by law enforcement, just like we could ask for our ID, we should be able to ask if you’re legal or not.”
He did, though, temper his statements with stories of his humble upbringing and that of his lieutenant governor. “We are country of legal immigration. My running mate, Jennifer Carroll, is a legal immigrant,” Scott said. “She has lived the American dream just like I have.”
Then the two went back to pounding each other.
“The reason you were able to walk out of that company with $300 million and live the American dream is because you were cheating,” Sink said, and later, “He says he wants to bring his business experience to Tallahassee. I can’t think of anything more frightening.”
She also further called Scott’s credibility into question regarding the 2000 deposition in which he refused to provide answers to questions asked of him. “I had a sheriff that told me the other day if one of his deputies went to a deposition and took the fifth amendment, that they would be fired on the spot.” Sink said. “People in this country don’t take the fifth amendment unless they’re trying to cover up something that they did wrong.”
Scott dismissed it as a case of overzealous attorneys. “All of the same trial lawyers that are supporting my opponent, they were doing a fishing expedition,” Scott said. “When I’m governor, we’re going to do tort reform.”
For his part, Scott slapped Sink with the same label of “Tallahassee insider” that proved a successful epithet for primary rival Bill McCollum, though Sink’s four-year tenure as CFO represents her only run for office. He also suggested that Sink has over-promised in her stump speeches. “If you quantify all the promises she’s made in this campaign, it’s a $14 billion increase in our budget,” Scott said, directing the audience to a campaign website for details as Sink laughed with incredulity in the background.
“I can’t wait to go to that website and see what you’re talking about,” Sink said. “You know, you can’t trust anything that Rick Scott says. He tells lies.”
Scott, who has faced criticism of ducking the press in the past, did not meet with reporters after the event as Sink did, although former Gov. Jeb Bush and Miami Congressmen Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart appeared on his behalf.
All three are strong critics of bringing an Arizona-style immigration bill to Florida, an idea that Scott champions, and all had formerly supported McCollum in the GOP primary. But all have now put reservations aside in pursuit of economic recovery.
“The question before Floridians has to be, who is ready from day one to create jobs in this state?” Lincoln said. “Without any doubt, it’s Rick Scott.”