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Rick Scott’s outsider image as Senate candidate clashes with Florida reality

FILE – In this March 9, 2018, file photo, Florida Gov. Rick Scott talks to the media in his office after signing the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act at the Florida Capital in Tallahassee, Fla. Scott is running for the Senate against Sen. Bill Nelson. Scott will officially announce his campaign on Monday, April 9, in Orlando. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser, File) NYAG104

TALLAHASSEE — It’s the thrust of Gov. Rick Scott’s message as a U.S. Senate candidate: He’ll shake up the system and fix Washington.

"Some say as governor I’ve never fit in or played by the political rules in Tallahassee. Well, that’s true," Scott says. "I never planned to fit in, and I won’t fit in in Washington, either."

The message is clear even if he didn’t say the three words: Scott, like President Donald Trump, will "drain the swamp."

But his populist image clashes with reality. Scott is a two-term incumbent with a long and controversial record of thriving in Tallahassee. He came in as an outsider, but he will leave with the status quo intact and insiders still in control.

"He’s not the same guy he was in 2010," says Phil Handy, a Republican business executive in Winter Park. "I consider him much more a part of the establishment, especially in the way he raises money."

Scott has pulled in special interest cash like no governor before him, stocked state government with friends, drawing charges of cronyism, and regularly socializes with top lobbyists, including Brian Ballard and Bill Rubin, who sat at Scott’s table at a recent leadership dinner at the Governor’s Mansion.

Even allies struggle to find ways that he changed the culture in a capital where he is by far the best-known politician. U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, a leading Republican candidate to replace Scott, plays up his support from Trump and tells voters: "I’m ready to fight for taxpayers like you to drain the swamp in Tallahassee."

Scott is mounting a formidable campaign against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in a race that could affect control of power in Washington, but presenting himself as an outsider is a challenge.

"It’s a little hard to go full-out populist when you’ve been governor for eight years," said Patrick Murray, a national pollster at Monmouth University, who noted that Scott does have the benefit of facing an opponent who has been in office since 1972 and can use that to harness anti-Washington feelings.

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It’s true that insiders were unhappy when Scott crashed the party in 2010 and beat Republican establishment favorite Bill McCollum.

But it didn’t last.

Scott and the special interests that control Tallahassee soon closed ranks and helped create a fundraising colossus that’s the envy of most other politicians and has eclipsed the Republican Party of Florida, with six-figure donors that comprise a who’s who of insiders, from Florida Power & Light to Big Sugar to Disney.

Money fuels the political "swamp," but Scott has not moved to curtail its influence and arguably enabled it to grow. After spending more than $70 million of his own money to win his first term, he welcomed the help of special interest dollars to win a second term and inspired a trend in others.

During Scott’s tenure, political committees like his $58 million Let’s Get to Work fund and its unlimited donations have proliferated in the Legislature, greatly expanding the amount of money in the political system.

And he has traveled to Washington often to raise money alongside quintessential insiders such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and lobbyist Haley Barbour.

"There’s been no campaign finance reform. That hasn’t changed one iota," said Mike Fasano, the Pasco County tax collector and former Republican lawmaker. "If anything, it’s gone backward."

Scott’s campaign defended his record of cutting red tape, reducing bureaucracy and making Florida a leader in economic development and jobs, saying, "Since his first day in office, he has worked to champion priorities and investments that make a difference in the lives of everyday Floridians — not political insiders."

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach, one of the few Republicans in the Florida Legislature who backed Scott over McCollum in 2010, said the outsider candidate adapted to the insider game to advance his agenda as governor.

Scott was frustrated with lawmakers who told him one thing and did another, and the former hospital executive knew he could not fire them, Gaetz said.

"One way to get better at that is to understand the various things, either proper or improper, that influence legislators, so I think the governor developed a working relationship with the special interest community," Gaetz said. "I don’t view that as something that made him more of a swamp creature; I just think he became more skilled at canoeing his way through the swamp."

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It’s not only money.

Scott has not used his enormous power to question a revolving-door culture in which lawmakers and staff members become lobbyists, trading on their relationships. A six-year ban, as proposed by a constitution revision panel, will be on the November ballot.

And Scott fought bitterly last year with a legislative leader who attacked the status quo, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, before they became allies.

The speaker said the state’s decades-old economic development programs that lure jobs with tax-supported incentives were wasteful giveaways and "corporate welfare," but Scott defended the programs — and won.

Nor has Scott been a model of transparency in the Sunshine State. He was forced to spend $700,000 of taxpayer money to settle lawsuits over use of private email accounts for public business.

He was forced to apologize for orchestrating the private ouster of the state’s top law enforcement official, Gerald Bailey, an action that triggered a lawsuit by Florida news organizations and a settlement that required greater openness in how the Cabinet operates.

And as "drain the swamp" evokes rooting out cronyism, Scott, like past governors in both parties, has followed one of the oldest rules in the playbook by appointing political insiders to powerful positions, in some cases multiple times.

They include Bradenton real estate developer Carlos Beruff, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, Tallahassee lawyer Pete Antonacci and Keiser University chancellor Belinda Keiser, among others.

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Scott campaigns as a Senate candidate who will make Washington work the way he made Florida work.

"You go to Tallahassee and you make real change, guess what happens?" he said at the Broward GOP’s recent fundraising dinner. "The political insiders, they’re mad at you."

He has cast himself as a reformer of sorts, blasting "tired" ideas and politicians. He has proposed super-majority votes to increase taxes and 12-year term limits for members of Congress. (The ideas appeal to voters but have zero traction on Capitol Hill, and Scott has not called for campaign finance reform or checks on the revolving door.)

His broader theme is that he ran on a specific agenda in 2010 and executed it by creating jobs, cutting taxes and regulations, and reducing Florida debt.

The state unemployment rate has fallen to 3.9 percent on Scott’s watch and PolitiFact has reported that Scott has mostly fulfilled the job-creation promises.

By Scott’s definition — jobs and an economic turnaround — he has done what he said he would. In a May 19 speech to Hillsborough County Republicans in Tampa, he ticked off a series of accomplishments — jobs and other signs of a rebounding economy.

"When I go to Washington, I’m going to do the exact same thing I did in Florida," Scott said. "We’re going to get something done."

In a way, Scott paved the way for another wealthy businessman to run for political office, and through Trump’s rise, Scott relished that association. Now, even as Scott tries to avoid Trump and his rhetoric on the campaign trail, people hear the message.

On the day in April when Scott announced his campaign for Senate and talked about fixing Washington, a supporter shouted a snappier tagline — "Drain the swamp!"

William March contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com and Alex Leary at aleary@tampabay.com.

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