Tampa Bay's business community finds itself in search of a candidate.
After spending big bucks backing candidate Bill McCollum in the governor's race, mainstream business watched Tuesday as the longtime politician lost the Republican primary to Rick Scott and his anti-Tallahassee message.
Suddenly the governor's race, which traditionalists thought would pit McCollum against Democrat and Florida chief financial officer Alex Sink, is forcing a rethink on who will be our next governor.
"Many in the business world were surprised Rick Scott won," said University of South Florida College of Business dean Robert Forsythe. "I think a lot of people are in a quandary over this."
In interviews Wednesday, Tampa Bay business leaders said the candidate who best offers a vision to improve and diversify Florida's sagging economy will become our next governor.
"The economy is key," said Tampa's Holland & Knight attorney Jim Davis, a Democrat who ran for governor in 2006 and lost to Charlie Crist. "People want to see a plan and be a part of it."
So, will typically GOP-leaning business leaders rally around Republican Scott? His ads so far claim CEO experience and promise to cut state government. But beyond the ads, he remains largely unknown. And because Scott is spending tens of millions of dollars of his own money on his campaign, he has no need to knock on corporate doors seeking contributions.
But business leaders insist Scott's claim of ignorance of fraud when he served as CEO of Columbia/HCA will not wash in the general election as it did in the Republican primary. Scott was ousted as CEO in 1997 by his own board while Columbia/HCA pleaded guilty and paid $1.7 billion in fines for overbilling state and federal health programs.
"If I am CEO of Sembler Co. and it is fined $1.7 billion, whether I know it or not, I should know about it," said former Sembler chief Craig Sher, a Democrat. "I got a problem with (Scott's claim) either way."
Still, Scott has deep pockets and, as executives describe it, a "catchy" phrase: "Let's get to work." The line resonates with voters angry over an impotent state government busy slashing costs to balance the budget but unable (or unwilling) to help the state's still horrid 11.5 percent unemployment rate.
Or do business leaders embrace Democrat Sink? The former Bank of America president in Florida speaks the language of business as well as Scott. And as a former executive with deep business ties, she served on economic development groups ranging from the Florida Chamber of Commerce to Enterprise Florida.
But beyond central Florida, Sink still is not well known to the general population. Many are not even sure if "Alex" is a man or woman — a critical campaign challenge for Sink hoping to become Florida's first female governor.
On Wednesday, the day after the primaries, TV ads from Scott and Sink were already in full gear.
Scott has an edge in money and TV image thanks to the personal fortune he's poured into months of advertising.
Sink's best hope, business folks say, is to build her brand and articulate a vision for Florida's economy. Quickly.
Otherwise, Scott will do it for her.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at email@example.com