TALLAHASSEE — With a mind sharpened by political combat and an ability to inspire loyalty as well as fear, the woman behind Gov. Rick Scott's conservative agenda can be as hard-charging as the bold policies she shapes.
Mary Anne Carter is the most powerful person you've never heard of in Florida's government.
Seated at Scott's right hand for every senior staff meeting, she oversees all matters of budget, policy, communications and legislative relations.
But Carter remains unknown to many Capitol insiders. She does her work behind closed doors, almost never travels with Scott and eschews e-mails to avoid state open records laws.
Those who know Carter describe her as spunky, intelligent and outgoing. Told that no one would put criticisms on the record for fear of reprisal, Carter laughed.
"Good, it worked," she said. "Don't print that. That was a joke."
Together, Carter and Scott make a formidable team of outsiders — she's a Tennessee resident with little government experience — that has tilted an already business-friendly state further in favor of its corporate residents.
"Mary Anne Carter is someone I've known for quite a while," Scott said. "I respect her opinion. She's very helpful thinking through policy."
Carter and Scott share similar political philosophies, but their personalities are a study in contrasts.
An expert in opposition research, Carter enjoys a smoky bar in the shadow of the Capitol, rubbing elbows with fellow grizzled political operatives. A 5-foot-10-inch blond, she laughs in a way that seems to say, "We both can't believe I just said that."
Despite a career in mergers and acquisitions, Scott can come off like a Boy Scout: buttoned-up, exceedingly polite and nonconfrontational.
Carter, 45, carries her own contradictions.
She is never without a picture or story about her 7-year-old daughter, but has spent much of the past 14 months away from her family while working for Scott.
She believes there is a desperate need to change politics-as-usual, but has pushed issues — like drug testing state workers or eliminating the tax on corporate profits — more likely to fit on a bumper sticker than soak up the state's historic unemployment.
She dismisses reporters as liberally biased and treats them like political opponents, researching their marital status, number of children and building a matrix of stories they write. Meanwhile, she is married to Michael Silence, a Knoxville News-Sentinel political reporter.
She loves talking sports, will always ask about your family and is gracious and loyal to the people who work for her. But she can be blustery with potential friends in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
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Carter started the annual legislative session in March with a terse text message ("We just killed high speed rail") to top-ranking lawmakers accustomed to being coddled and ended it by signing off on Scott's budget veto speech that ridiculed the Legislature's "waste-filled" budget.
"I didn't have much to do with her," said Sen. Don Gaetz, a Panhandle Republican and one of the most influential lawmakers in the Senate.
Many of Carter's positions on policy earn high marks from Florida voters, including forcing state workers to contribute to their pensions. But those same residents are increasingly wary of Scott. Fewer than one in three voters like what he's doing, giving him one of the worst approval ratings for any governor in the country.
Scott's media team is often blamed for his tanking approval numbers. But some problems for the nascent administration are rooted in the application of its policies.
When Carter wanted Scott to highlight their work to eliminate a running deficit at one state agency, the decision was made to cut spending on the care of developmentally disabled. It resulted in a protest in Scott's lobby by children in wheelchairs.
"Could we have softened some of the sharp ends? Maybe," said pollster Tony Fabrizio, the architect of Scott's campaign. "But at the end of the day, it wasn't one or two groups upset about what was done.
"We were, in effect, p------ off everybody."
Carter acknowledges missteps within the administration but says there is nothing she would change.
"My role was to push the governor's agenda. And that's what I did," Carter said of her $150,000-per-year job.
"We had a hugely successful session," she said. "So from my viewpoint, no. There's nothing I would have done differently."
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"MAC" to friends, Carter has made a living out of campaigning against career politicians.
"I like people who were successful in life, who have taken risks and had to make decisions," she said. "A lot of these politicians, their whole life is centered around the next race."
Carter herself is a political nomad whose campaign-hopping resembles a childhood marked by constant relocations of her military family.
"I can't remember the number of moves," said Carter, the youngest of four and her parents' only daughter.
The frequent moving — her family lived in Bethesda, Md., three times — increased the importance of sports. She has a passion for basketball symbolized by a four-year streak of attending "March Madness" games. (It was broken this year due to the session.)
"When you move around like that you learn you have to go out and meet people," Carter said. "And sports was a great way to do that."
Growing up in the Washington, D.C., area fueled Carter's interest in campaigns. "You're kind of involved in politics whether you want to be or not," she said.
After working for the late U.S. Sen. John Heinz, R-Pa., after college, Carter met her political mentor on Larry Hopkins' failed 1992 campaign for Kentucky governor.
Bill Lacey, the campaign manager, was so impressed with Carter's well-organized opposition research that he hired her to do the same job for Fred Thompson's U.S. Senate campaign and presidential bids for Thompson and Bob Dole.
"Mary Anne is one of the most talented individuals I've ever worked with," said Lacey, now director of the the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas.
The Dole campaign was a defining moment for Carter.
Both she and Lacey were canned after the New Hampshire primary. Carter's exit was sparked by a research error, which led to an incorrect attack ad on Steve Forbes' tax plan, and cemented by Lacey's ouster as campaign manager The episode was documented by the New York Times and in Bob Woodward's book The Choice.
But Carter formed important relationships on the Dole campaign, where she met Fabrizio and bonded with one of her research team members, a recent Harvard Law School graduate named Enu Mainigi.
Mainigi returned the favor more than a decade later when she introduced Carter and Fabrizio to a former hospital executive eager to spend millions in an attempt to derail President Barack Obama's health insurance proposals.
Carter and Fabrizio became the core of Scott's Conservatives for Patients Rights, an advocacy group Scott funded to help whip up tea party rage in the summer of 2009 and defeat the so-called "public option" in Obama's health insurance plan. The pair also was the nucleus of Scott's campaign for Florida governor.
Scott's transition from Election Day to inauguration splintered the campaign team, leaving Carter as one of the only senior staffers to move into the administration. Her initial plan was to help Scott's team find its legs and phase out after session.
But now Scott's chief of staff, Mike Prendergast, is expected to be moved to a state agency job and a shake-up of top-level staff could follow. Carter says she is torn between returning home and finishing the job she started.
"I want to do whatever I can to help the governor," Carter said. "But I've been away from home a lot now.
"I don't know what the future holds."
Michael C. Bender can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.