WESLEY CHAPEL — The invitation said "business attire," but Gov. Rick Scott apparently interpreted that as business casual.
Shunning a tie for his newly-favored open-collar shirt with the state seal on it, Scott created quite the buzz when he showed up Wednesday night at the Pasco County Economic Development Council's 25th annual industry appreciation banquet, a networking event that could be described as the Pasco County's business community's fall homecoming dance. This year's milestone celebration drew a bigger crowd than usual, including past EDC leaders and a gaggle of politicians.
Arriving just before dinner began at 7 p.m., Scott drew a mixed response when Rep. Will Weatherford, set to become House speaker in 2012, introduced him to the business-friendly crowd at Saddlebrook Resort. While some quickly stood and clapped, others kept quiet in their seats.
Weatherford described Scott as "a businessman, not a politician," who "tells you what he thinks."
With that, Scott took the lectern. He stuck to his script of less regulation and low taxes to make Florida competitive in attracting businesses. "Business people can go anywhere in the world today," he said.
He recounted his beginnings as the son of a man with a sixth-grade education and a mother who worked as a department store clerk. Scott said regulations too often hinder businesses from starting and mentioned a group that waited 14 years for a permit.
"We're not going to slow down the process just because we have the right to slow it down," he said.
Scott praised GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry for his jobs record as governor of Texas, but insisted it was not an endorsement. "We've got to do the exact same thing they have," he said of Texas.
He also took a swipe at teachers' unions, which he described as "special interests," and said merit pay and school choice "makes everybody better." He said he wants to lower taxes and make Florida "an affordable place to live."
After the speech, Scott was followed out of the banquet room by a handful of fans seeking photos with him.
Scott, whose controversial policies have given him one of the lowest approval ratings of any governor in America, smiled and posed with them.
"I should have shaved the goatee, but my wife wouldn't let me," said Peter Buczynsky jokingly. He is owner of PharmaWorks Inc. in Odessa, who, like the governor, is bald and is sometimes called a Scott look-alike.
"I actually voted for you," said Carla Looper of Florida Insurance Brokers in Brooksville as she posed for a group photo with Scott and banquet emcee Heather Van Nest, news anchor for WTSP-TV.
Not everyone was so enamored.
"I had to keep reminding myself I wasn't at a campaign event," said former County Commissioner Michael Cox, a Democrat. "It sounded like the same old tired rhetoric he used on the campaign trail when he bought the office."
State Sen. Mike Fasano, a Republican who has been a vocal critic of Scott's policies, was more tempered. He said the governor did "an excellent job" on his speech and that having him there was a testament to the growing clout of the Pasco Economic Development Council.
However, when Scott touched on a keeping Florida affordable for residents, Fasano balked.
"I thought, 'Does he realize he's in Pasco County?' " said Fasano, who has protested Scott's support of the proposal by Citizens Property Insurance Corp. to drastically raise sinkhole rates. "I had to smile to myself."