Thursday, February 22, 2018
Politics

Gov. Rick Scott's courtesy notes double as campaign promotion

TALLAHASSEE — Call him Governor Congratulations.

For the past year, Gov. Rick Scott has asked for the names and addresses of lottery winners, Florida Bar candidates, professional license applicants, recent college graduates and even agency staff so that he can pen them a personalized note or an "attaboy."

Some get a handwritten recognition of a special achievement, a new family member, even a birthday wish. Most get a form letter of congratulations, studded with the talking points of the governor's re-election campaign.

"It is my pleasure to congratulate you on winning a Florida Lottery prize!'' Scott has written to 18,541 lottery winners since September. He then notes how lottery proceeds go into education and how education helps create jobs, and repeats his mantra: "I am focused on keeping Florida's economy moving in the right direction."

It's all a part of the governor's attempt to turn routine courtesies of the office into a public relations machine.

Scott is running for re-election with poll numbers that remain low against former Gov. Charlie Crist, the Democratic challenger — as much as 10 percentage points according to recent polls.

The Lottery Department estimates the cost of two months of lottery letters is $1,149.54. Since the beginning of the year, the governor has also written to more than 400,000 Floridians who have received or renewed their business and professional licenses — a cost to the state of nearly $10,000, the Florida Times-Union reported. And last year, Scott asked for the names of school kids who got a perfect score on standardized tests.

"Growing up, my parents struggled financially,'' Scott wrote in his letter to those who received business permits. "In fact, when I started school, we lived in public housing."

In a letter to the new attorneys, the governor detailed the legacy of his predecessor, Crist, without mentioning his name.

"In the four years before taking office, Florida lost more than 832,000 jobs, and unemployment more than tripled — from 3.5 to 11.1 percent," he said. "State debt increased by $5.2 billion, our housing market collapsed, our economy was off track and our families were hurting."

The practice has drawn fire from the Florida Democratic Party, which accuses the governor of having "wasted taxpayer dollars on poll-tested letters."

"This is what you do when you're desperate to win, and have more spin doctors than common decency,'' wrote Democratic Party spokesman Joshua Karp in a statement to reporters.

Some of the recipients aren't pleased either.

Gail Ellyson complained to the Miami Herald in June, after she received a Scott letter when she renewed her Florida Broker's License. "I find this letter disturbing,'' she wrote. "The Governor has undoubtedly used taxpayer funds for self-service of his political office and future. I resent my tax dollars being used for a tagalong political comment with my renewal."

It has not all gone according to plan for Scott. The governor's office had hoped to be able to send personalized notes to the biggest lottery winners — the hundreds who win between $600 and $100,000 each week — but his office was rebuffed when it discovered the Lottery Department is not allowed to release those details.

And in September, Lisa Meyer of the governor's staff asked officials at the Department of Children and Families and the Agency for Health Care Administration to send her the names of 50 employees each month but emphasized they should also include "a suggested brief text for him to include" in the personalized notes.

Form letters are nothing new for politicians, nor is using the powers of office to campaign. But Scott's letters are not only more extensive in scope when compared to predecessors like Crist and former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, but they adhere more closely to the governor's campaign mantra.

Crist, who was known for writing his share of notes during four years as governor, said he has no problem with the practice. "I think it's important for the governor to congratulate people when good things happen to them, and what I try to do is call people when sad things happen to them,'' he said. "It's part of the responsibility."

As for whether the notes go too far in promoting the governor's agenda, Crist added: "I'll leave that to others to judge.''

Scott said Tuesday he's not going to stop.

"I think every Floridian ought to brag about our state,'' he said. "I want to congratulate everybody that is doing a great job and I'm going to continue to do that."

Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.

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