When a Florida Chamber of Commerce official characterizes the governor's race as "John Morgan's employee versus a businessman," it's pretty clear who the probusiness, antiregulation organization wants to see in the governor's mansion next term.
But neither candidate — former Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Morgan & Morgan lawyer, or current Gov. Rick Scott — is a front-runner. And Florida Chamber vice president and longtime political watcher Brad Swanson, briefing a business audience Wednesday morning at Duke Energy Florida headquarters in St. Petersburg, predicted the race will likely come down to a difference of just 1 or 1.5 percentage points. The Florida Chamber has raised more than $1 million for Scott.
Scott's personal wealth catapulted last year to $132.7 million from $82.3 million in 2012. Such deep pockets assure ample funding of a campaign focused, laserlike, on the governor's claiming responsibility for creating more than 600,000 jobs in the state since he took office in 2011. Weighing against that, Swanson acknowledges, is that Scott gets low personality scores for TV appearances, where he too often is seen spouting canned campaign messages no matter what is asked of him.
Crist, in contrast, listed a net worth last year $131 million smaller than Scott's. But Swanson expects Crist will raise enough in campaign contributions — much of them from trial lawyers — to remain financially competitive with Scott. And Swanson praised Crist's innate ability to capture any audience with his friendly outreach, familiarity with people's names and willingness to call the next day asking for a contribution.
One of Scott's current campaign ads on TV rips Crist for raising college tuition in Florida when he was governor.
A Florida Democratic Party ad airing for Crist reaches back to 1997 to remind viewers when the hospital chain Columbia/HCA that Scott then ran as CEO was fined $1.7 billion for Medicare fraud. In testimony, Scott "took the Fifth" repeatedly, yet managed to walk away from his job with a golden parachute worth $300 million.
That same controversy was front and center in 2010, when Scott first ran. It did not stop him then. Why should it deter him now?
Four years ago, the Florida Chamber balked at Scott, initially backing Republican Bill McCollum, who then lost to Scott in a primary. Scott went on to defeat Democrat Alex Sink by a thin margin, 48.9 to 47.7 percent of the vote.
Also at the briefing by the Florida Chamber, regional executives were told:
• Water — we'll need 28 percent more of it by 2030 — will be the most critical political issue for the next six to nine years as the state tries to keep up with population growth.
• The Chamber launched a state news service called "Florida Wins" to provide, in its words, "the facts the media won't tell you." Curiously, so far most of the news offered at its floridawins.org website comes from links to newspapers.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]