In an election year tilting Republican, with the two major candidates for governor who have spent more time in the boardroom than in politics, it should be a dream-come-true year for Florida's business interests.
But for many in the business community, the choice is not an easy one.
Republican Rick Scott was founder and former CEO of the for-profit hospital chain Columbia/HCA but is still largely unknown among business circles. Democrat Alex Sink, who spent 26 years with NationsBank and then Bank of America, was elected Florida's chief financial officer on the strength of business support, but now faces doubts from those same groups.
"Politics is not business as usual anymore; it's a very strange world out there," said Rick McAllister, president of the Florida Retail Federation. He said that businesses want stability and predictability to operate in Florida, and the question for both candidates is: "Are you going to change the rules?"
"Based on what Rick Scott is saying, and his preference for his party, we would think he'd be evenhanded and help us grow," McAllister said. But because Scott has spent so little time in Florida, he is still "somebody we don't know."
Sink, by contrast, has a history of working with community groups and serving on high-profile business boards like TaxWatch, the nonprofit business-backed watchdog group, and Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development partnership. But she has also accepted contributions from the two groups that make business leaders wary — lawyers and unions.
"Alex Sink is a very likable person and we very much supported her as CFO — she did an excellent job," said McAllister. "The quandary we have is when you have the responsibility for vetoing or signing legislation that deals with unions and trial lawyers — that concerns us."
Organizations that represent some of the largest companies in Florida have endorsed Scott. The National Federation of Independent Business was one of the first to embrace him after he defeated Attorney General Bill McCollum in the primary.
Associated Industries of Florida, which represents larger corporations like Florida Power & Light and Wal-Mart, endorsed Scott, who once sat on AIF's board. And the Florida Chamber of Commerce, on whose board Sink used to serve, did an about-face and threw its support behind Scott after steering nearly $2.5 million in campaign cash to defeat him in the primary.
Agricultural groups, however, are less willing to rally behind Scott, who made bringing the Arizona immigration law to Florida a hallmark of his primary campaign.
Butch Calhoun, director of government affairs for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, said his organization has invited Scott to meet with them today and will ask him about his position.
"Farm labor is a major issue, and I am sure Rick Scott will get some questions," Calhoun said. "There's a provision or two in the Arizona (immigration) law that would create problems here in Florida."
Farmers in Florida bring in legal workers from Jamaica and Mexico under federal farm labor laws, and the federal e-verify system required by the Arizona law too often causes them to lose documented workers because it can take as much as six weeks to register a documented worker.
"For agriculture, that's a harvest season," Calhoun said.
The Florida Medical Association has not decided whom to endorse, said Tim Stapleton, association president. The main concern of doctors is repairing the low Medicaid reimbursement rates for Florida doctors, which is 60 percent of what Medicare pays — the lowest rate in the nation.
He said that while they expect Scott's health care background and Sink's work as CFO to inform them of these issues, "we want to know what their plans are for increasing access to Medicaid patients and making sure physicians are paid fairly."
Meanwhile, the Florida Nurses Association has endorsed Sink, as have the firefighters and all of the state's police unions.
David Murrell of the Florida Police Benevolent Association calls Scott's economic plan ''voodoo economics'' that will result in slashing prison programs and create a "throw-them-out mentality" that pumps prisoners onto the streets. "I don't know how many Republicans will want to support that kind of soft-on-crime approach," he said.
Across the state, both Sink and Scott are reaching out to business groups to line up pods of support.
This month, Sink held an event in Little Havana featuring a group of Hispanic Republican women who were endorsing Sink. Among them was Marielena Villamil, the president and CEO of the Washington Economics Group in Coral Gables. She said she has known Sink since her days at Bank of America, when Sink was involved with the Enterprise Florida Board.
Villamil's husband, Tony, who was chairman of former Gov. Jeb Bush's council of economic advisers, is also endorsing Sink.
Both Sink and Scott have spent several days since the Aug. 24 primary meeting with boards of directors and associations lobbying for their endorsement. On Thursday, they were both grilled extensively by the Florida Chamber of Commerce board.
"Rick Scott's position on the issues more clearly align with the future of Florida's economy," Edie Ousley, chamber spokeswoman, said.
What does that mean?
Ousley couldn't say, but hinted that Scott is saying all the right things — he'll cut regulations, taxes and reduce the size of government.
Sink has also made many of the same promises, and has sided with the chamber in opposition to the class-size amendment and against the teachers union.
But the fact that Scott is such an unknown has charmed many in the business community, said Pete Dunbar, a former state legislator from Pinellas County who served with Republican Gov. Bob Martinez.
"The prior experience that Alex Sink had has produced pockets of support that you would traditionally not find for a Democratic candidate," Dunbar said. But Scott leaves the impression that "he will come in there and shake things up. For the business community, that's exciting."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected]
Correction: Rick Scott once sat on the board of Associated Industries of Florida. An earlier version of this story was incorrect.