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Rick Scott, multimillionaire political rookie, gunning to be governor of Florida

You may be wondering about that bald guy, Rick Scott, who keeps popping up on TV talking about getting elected governor of Florida.

He's a multimillionaire political rookie who could be Bill McCollum's worst nightmare as a Republican rival. Or the dream client of political consultants who stand to make a bundle off of Scott's ego and longshot campaign. Maybe both.

What's clear in this vast state where political viability is defined in dollar signs is that Scott can't be dismissed.

In one month, the controversial co-founder of Columbia/HCA heath care system has spent more than $4.7 million introducing himself to Floridians in TV and radio ads — more than McCollum has raised in 12.

The GOP has spent about $1 million on ads attacking Democrat Alex Sink, and her campaign spends a fraction of that on TV spots responding.

Scott, who moved two years ago into an $11.5 million waterfront home in Naples, is on pace to spend more than $25 million by the Aug. 24 primary, and his campaign has signaled no hesitation to paint McCollum as a useless, career politician.

"If ever there were a time for a conservative outsider who understands business, the time is now,'' Scott said in an interview. "There's going to be a clear choice between career politicians with their old ideas and stuck in the status quo, and a complete outsider with fresh ideas. . . . I've built companies, I've created jobs, I know the frustration of small businesses with higher taxes."

Scott's last-minute candidacy caught the McCollum campaign — and most everybody else — flat-footed. Publicly, the Republican attorney general has largely ignored his wealthy rival.

"Bill McCollum has been a faithful Republican, he's been tried and true, and this guy jumps in like an interloper,'' lamented veteran Republican fundraiser Ann Herberger, who questioned whether it's too late for Scott to overtake McCollum. "This is a fundraiser's worst nightmare come true. It could be a game-changer, but time is Rick Scott's enemy.''

Florida Democrats have signalled they see Scott, 57, as a potential Republican nominee, with the state party blasting Scott's business background in press releases and web ads.

"I think Rick Scott's going to be the nominee. McCollum's known, but he is not that known," said Democratic frontrunner Alex Sink's normally conservative pollster, Dave Beattie of Jacksonville, acknowledging the mother­lode of ammunition available against Scott.

"If McCollum only has a week (of TV commercials) to tell that story, I don't think it gets through," said Beattie.

Scott appears to differ little with McCollum on issues, and so far offers only broad platitudes about cutting waste and making government accountable. But in a year when voters are fed up with incumbents, Scott is campaigning as a tea party outsider who knows business.

The McCollum campaign scoffs at the potential threat.

"Rick Scott is a relatively unknown candidate that will have to answer some very serious questions about his history if he is to be viewed as a credible candidate,'' said spokeswoman Kristy Campbell.

The main question centers around Scott's leadership at Columbia/HCA, the health care megacompany he helped found and expand. Scott was ousted from the firm amid a federal fraud investigation into the company's business and billing practices. The company wound up paying a record $1.7 billion settlement after pleading guilty to overbilling the government.

"There's no question that mistakes were made and as CEO, I have to accept responsibility for those mistakes. I was focused on lowering costs and making the hospitals more efficient,'' said Scott, who touts his company's record of eliminating waste and reducing health care costs. "I could have had more internal and external controls. I learned hard lessons, and I've taken that lesson and it's helped me become a better business person and a better leader."

Scott walked away from Columbia/HCA with a $10 million payout and $300 million in stock.

In 2001, he co-founded a chain of walk-in urgent care centers, Solantic, centered around northeast Florida. He has faced controversies there, too.

"I was watching television and saw his ad go on about him running for governor,'' said Dr. David Yarian, who was Solantic's first regional medical director until he was fired after about five months. "My jaw dropped and I said, 'Oh my God. I can't have this.' It scares me what he would do and how would he do it."

Yarian said Scott was obsessed with appearances over qualifications and demanded only trim and fit employees be hired. When a Hispanic staffer was about to be hired, he said Scott sent him an e-mail encouraging "mainstream" hires.

A campaign spokeswoman, Jennifer Baker, said the accusation is ridiculous and came from a disgruntled former employee fired for, among other things, violating a policy against accepting pharmaceutical samples. Other former employees have made discrimination claims in court against Solantic, but Baker cited figures released last year showing 53 percent of Solantic's employees are white, 20 percent black and 17 percent Hispanic.

Baker said the McCollum campaign was trying to resurrect accusations that surfaced in a Salon article last year when Scott was spending millions attacking the health care reform plan.

Scott has hired Susie Wiles, a well-connected Republican consultant from Jacksonville, to lead the campaign, which will be based in Fort Lauderdale. He has also brought on some respected national consultants, including OnMessage Inc. and Warfield and Co. to handle advertising, and pollster Tony Fabrizio.

Scott stressed that he plans a robust money-raising campaigning, but so far it looks like a much more robust money-spending campaign.

"I know I can do this. I know I'm the right person," Scott said. "If career politicians had the solutions, we wouldn't be in the mess that we are."

Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Will Gorham contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

Rick Scott, multimillionaire political rookie, gunning to be governor of Florida 05/06/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 6, 2010 10:22pm]
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