Magazine | April 6, 2015, Issue

The Best Bad Politician in America

Or is Rick Scott the worst good one?

Philadelphia — The Wawarians packed into the Four Seasons are hopping, bopping, shouting like true believers at a sunset revival meeting, and generally getting a hell of a lot more excited about convenience-store news than you’d expect people to, if you didn’t know about their employer — Wawa — and the cultish devotion of its customers and employees both, a cracked and inexplicable enthusiasm for the gas-’n’-snacks chain’s hoagies and coffee that sees crowds of people — and I swear I am not making this up — camping out in front of new stores the way people do for rock concerts and Apple product launches, hoping to be among the first inside to lay claim to a meatball “Shorti” or a Spicy Fiesta Turkey Wrap, checking the Wawa app (of course there’s an app) for Wawa news, and sympathizing with the great Wawa Diaspora, whose members, having been strewn across the lesser principalities of 7-Eleven and Circle K, lament their inability to satisfy their Wawa joneses. Getting pumped about a convenience store is a local peculiarity that is as Philly as scrapple sandwiches, although Wawa, for whatever reason, doesn’t sell those.

The CEO is on hand, of course, but no less a figure than the governor is on the scene, too, praising the company’s nurturing culture — you can’t buy Wawa stock, but you can earn it by becoming a store associate — and talking up the chain’s ahead-of-schedule expansion campaign and the thousands of jobs it has created.

Strange thing: The governor who is singing paeans to a company deeply rooted in southeastern Pennsylvania — its headquarters are in Wawa, Pa. — is not Tom Wolf, the Democrat recently elected to the top job in Harrisburg.

It’s Governor Rick Scott, welcoming Wawa’s expansion into Florida, where it will be adding Cuban hoagies to the menu and a few thousand jobs to the state’s economy.

Governor Scott’s timing is superb — the governor of Florida is in sub-freezing Philadelphia on what turns out to be the coldest day of 2015 — and if he’s a long way from home, he’s headed even farther afield, on his way to California as he takes the Great Sunshine State Poaching Roadshow on its North American tour. He’ll have to update his speech: Those smug late-winter reminders that it’s 80 in Daytona won’t impress Californians, but Scott isn’t here to sell weather. He’s selling low taxes, a robust work force, solid schools, and, for those with ears to hear, a lot more than most people probably want to hear — but less than they should hear — about port dredging. He’s offering a variation on the old UPS advertising slogan, here to tell business owners — especially those in states afflicted with tax-happy Democratic governors — what orange can do for them.

Rick Scott is all about the numbers, and Florida’s numbers look pretty good: His state has no income tax but is enjoying a $15 billion budget surplus. It has nearly 300,000 job openings at the moment, more than three times the number of people it has on unemployment. In USA Today’s gold-and-silver-medal high-school rankings, Florida outperforms such traditional powerhouses as New Jersey, and the National Center for Education Statistics finds significantly narrower achievement gaps between white, black, and Hispanic students in Florida than in most other states — the white–Hispanic gap in Florida is about half what it is in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Business Insider recently ranked Florida’s economy the seventh best in the nation, which is remarkable, considering how mercilessly Florida was pummeled by the financial crisis and ensuing recession, losing more than 800,000 jobs — including nearly half of all construction work — with unemployment leaping from 3.5 percent to 11.1 percent. (And the mortgage crisis hasn’t really ended for Florida: According to Bankrate, Florida still leads the nation in share of homes in foreclosure.) There are some brisk headwinds, to be sure, but, all things considered, Florida has had a remarkable run of it in the past several years.

Scott, a competitive and sometimes prickly man, jokes that what he really wanted to do for the past several years was “kick Rick Perry’s butt” so the Texas governor would stop lording all those new jobs over the other state executives. “He’s a great promoter,” Scott says, half admiringly, half ruefully. On the economy — the issue voters say they care about more than any other — Rick Scott has delivered.

So why isn’t he more popular?

We need to talk about port dredging. Governor Scott, who is meeting with a number of Pennsylvania businesses other than Wawa, has brought the squad: his work-force people, his schools people, his quality-of-life people, the new CEO of Enterprise Florida, Bill Johnson . . . who is also his port-dredging people. Johnson, formerly the head of the Port of Miami, has been knocking his head up against the federal leviathan for years — the Miami airport, which was under his jurisdiction, has long been infamous for the hours-long waiting times it inflicts on foreign visitors entering the country. That stress and irritation is a big and hairy problem when you’re selling relaxation, beaches, and golf. He begged, Washington dithered, and improvements were excruciatingly slow in coming. And that has been the story on another big project: dredging out Florida seaports — there are 15 of them — so that they can accommodate the “New Panamax” ships that will navigate the expanded Panama Canal, where a new set of locks is set to double the passage’s capacity by 2016. That dredging is in the federal portfolio, but Washington was not forthcoming with the last $78 million to finish the project. So Florida put up the money itself. Johnson, who is fluent in the technocratese that is the lingua franca of the Scott administration, speaks with passion about “strategic infrastructure” and the importance of logistics, and praises the governor for getting the state legislature to see things his way. Scott breaks it down to a straight ROI question: $78 million out of pocket in exchange for what he expects to be 33,000 jobs and a new economic edge — he will take that action all day.

The port-dredging business ultimately isn’t about the ships. It’s about manufacturing, which Florida has more of than you might think. Embraer, the Brazilian aerospace giant, builds airplanes there, and Lockheed and Northrop Grumman have facilities in Florida, too. Imported material for those facilities does not necessarily arrive at Florida ports. On top of that, a great deal of the automobile assembly that happens in Mexico, Brazil, and the rest of Latin America involves parts and components made in the United States and shipped south — out of ports from Savannah to Los Angeles. Florida has its eye on that business, with the long-term strategy that a state that can handle all of your big-time southbound container-ship traffic — a state with no personal income tax, low business taxes, no sales tax on machinery and equipment — might be a good place to do your manufacturing, too.

Oranges are great, but Florida could use an Apple.

People do not think of Florida as a high-tech state, and that reputation has real-world consequences: Florida has the nation’s third-largest economy, but it underperforms on venture-capital investment (No. 10), patents (No. 11), and R&D expenditures (No. 15). Part of Scott’s strategy for dealing with that is blunt force: Florida is now the nation’s third-largest state, having surpassed New York in population, with a commensurately large work force and number of college graduates. Part of the strategy is education: Scott has STEM fever, and the new Florida Polytechnic University will offer nothing but science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. Part of it is finance, too: Florida is home to a lot of rich people who are retired but not necessarily decrepit, people who made their money in New York and Chicago and don’t want to be pillaged by Sandinista Bill and the Dead Fish, respectively, but don’t necessarily want to while away the days playing golf, either. Florida wants to create an environment that will encourage them to stay in the game — and one that will encourage the better-off of the tens of millions of visitors it receives each year to buy a second home there, become permanent residents, or start businesses.

Rick Scott didn’t pick Pennsylvania out of a hat: The state is in fiscal trouble, and the new Democratic governor is looking to solve things the Democratic way — with a tax hike on the people Democrats insist on calling “the rich.” Florida wants to call them residents.

On the opposite coast, Governor Jerry Brown’s phony miracle is scheduled for a date with an ugly Chicago-style pension-funding crisis. How do you think he’ll propose closing that financial gap? Last time, he did it with a 29 percent income-tax increase on “the rich” and a sales-tax hike on everybody else.

So, it’s on to California . . .

‘Fewest number of state employees per capita!” Yeah, Rick Scott is the type of governor who likes to nerd out a little bit and cite that kind of statistic. He sometimes speaks in gubernatorial platitudes — “We solve problems!” — but is more at home when he is up to his sleeve gaiters in policy arcana. Mitt Romney once sent a roomful of conservative friends into a groan chorus when he was asked about the principles he brings to problem solving and answered: “I like data!”

Rick Scott loves data.

But think of it this way: Rick Scott is the politician everybody says he wants. He is, at heart, a Singapore-style technocrat, a successful businessman — he’s worth some $100 million personally — who may check the requisite Republican boxes but is mainly non-ideological, even anti-ideological. He doesn’t talk Road to Serfdom like Ted Cruz, and he doesn’t make a show out of it every time he appoints a gay man to a high office, either. Everything he does is oriented toward return on investment. Do Florida’s deal-sweeteners and tax incentives scandalize free-market purists? Absolutely, as do similar arrangements in 49 other states. He rolls his eyes a little when questioned about all that corporate welfare: “If I can get a return for Florida taxpayers, I do it,” he says. End of subject.

He has little apparent taste for culture wars and traditional hot-button conservative issues: A reporter in Philadelphia questioned him about the mini-scandal of his administration’s deciding not to appeal a ruling against the state in the matter of trying to clean up Florida’s voter rolls (a “purge,” the critics called it), a gubernatorial shrug and sigh that had the talk-radio callers baying for blood. Scott looks irritated by the question and explains that Florida has a secretary of state and that the secretary of state is confident that Florida can clean up its voter rolls without having to make a federal case out of it.

About that secretary of state: He’s a Republican. Lots of Republicans down there among the orange groves. Florida may be a 50–50 proposition in presidential elections, but it has a Republican governor who replaced a governor elected as a Republican (oh, Charlie Crist!) who replaced a Republican governor named Bush. It has a Republican lieutenant governor. It recently sent Marco Rubio to the Senate and has elected Republican after Republican to statewide offices: the attorney general, the chief financial officer, and the agriculture commissioner. Republicans outnumber Democrats in the state house two to one. The state senate is 25-to-14 Republican. Democrats have lost 17 of the last 18 statewide races.

And what does Rick Scott get for being all business? A measly plurality, 48.1 percent of the vote to 47.1 for Charlie Crist, the most odious and loathsome thing to slither out of the GOP since Arlen Specter. That’s worse than he did back in 2010, when he squeaked past with another non-majority: 48.9 percent.

He is kind of a terrible politician, almost endearingly bad at the glib grip-and-grin part of his job. He inspires loyalty in his people — Bill Johnson told the Miami Herald: “I don’t consider this governor a politician. I consider this governor a leader.” Off the record, nobody has anything truly negative to say about him. His people make the usual noises about how Republicans get the shaft in the media, and one goes so far as to confess that, if you did not know him, you would not think Rick Scott “warm and fuzzy.” And he’s not: He’s tense and fidgety and looks like Moloch from The Watchmen, and he sells Florida so hard that you half expect him to ask: “What is it going to take to get you into this Buick today?” He doesn’t inspire the way a Marco Rubio does, crusade like Rand Paul, or call down the thunder like Ted Cruz. But none of those guys has a state to run, either.

Rick Scott does details, and he’s just crass/opportunistic/ballsy enough to show up in Democratic states every time they pass a tax hike to remind the locals that there are lower taxes and higher temperatures just down the way. People don’t have to love him. It just has to work.

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