The Agenda

Tory Newmyer on Florida’s CEO Governor Rick Scott

Rick Scott, the nation’s most unpopular governor, elicits a strong negative reaction not just from the left, but from some on the right as well. Because I share many of Scott’s views, particularly on reforming K-12 education, I’ve found his tenure dismaying, as one gets the impression that he is a thoughtful, determined person who has been undone by political experience. Tory Newmyer has written a fascinating portrait of Scott, describing his humble origins, his role in a high-stakes corporate scandal, and his unusual political career so far.

The article is tragic in many ways. Consider the following:

In the context of his doctrinaire spending blueprint, Scott’s decision to reject $2.4 billion in federal stimulus money for a high-speed rail project made easy sense. Here was the Tea Party governor following through on his campaign-trail opposition to what he termed “ObamaRail.” But a Fortune look into the episode that earned Scott national renown reveals how his thinking can be more nuanced than his presentation.

The feds argued for the project on its economic merits: Just building the 85-mile route between Orlando and Tampa would yield thousands of new jobs. Publicly, Scott answered in kind, reasoning that construction overruns and unseen operating expenses would leave Florida taxpayers on the hook for billions in extra costs. The decision grabbed national headlines, and his political team, which had been advising him to scrap the project, was happy enough to see it framed as a principled stand against runaway government spending.

But Scott was much closer to taking the money than has previously been reported. Though he was skeptical of the project’s merits, Scott had been trying to cut a deal with the Obama administration to improve the state’s position. He believed the White House badly wanted him to accept the funding to build what they hoped would become a model for a nation-spanning system of high-speed rail. Scott, however, was keener to secure federal help dredging the Jacksonville and Miami ports, to make them accessible to the supertankers that will be ferrying cargo through an enlarged Panama Canal as soon as 2014. Republican state senator Paula Dockery, an early Scott backer and adviser on transportation issues, says Scott at one point told her he was inclined to accept the rail project but was using it as a bargaining chip with Washington. Scott doesn’t dispute her account. He says he told Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, “You want this project done. I can tell you what I’m interested in. If you want to make it interesting to me, make it interesting to me.” Scott says that since LaHood refused to negotiate, his original misgivings carried the day.

This is insanely depressing. As Michael Cooper of the New York Times suggested, the Tampa-to-Orlando route was chosen for a very particular reason:

The Tampa-to-Orlando route had obvious drawbacks: It would have linked two cities that are virtually unnavigable without cars, and that are so close that the new train would have been little faster than driving. But the Obama administration chose it anyway because it was seen as the line that could be built first. …

The demise of the Florida line is different, though. It will delay the country’s first bullet train ride by years, if not longer, and deprive the Obama administration of what it had hoped would be a showpiece that would sell the rest of the nation on high-speed rail.

And Scott was pressing for … federal help to dredge the ports of Jacksonvile and Miami because it would make them accessible to supertankers. Deeper ports aren’t necessarily much of a showpiece, but they would have been a boon to Florida’s economy. 

At the end of the piece, Newmyer describes Scott’s efforts to reinvent himself. We’ll see how he fares, particularly given the avalanche of independent and campaign expenditures that will flood the state over the next ten months. Implicit in the article is a critique of the idea of a CEO governor, which may be salient to Romney’s argument that business acumen can contribute to successful public sector leadership. To be sure, Romney had political experience than Scott lacked, but Democrats will tie CEO Romney CEO Scott in Florida, as Newmyer makes clear in his article.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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