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Rick Scott the TV image well known, Rick Scott the man is not

After buying and selling everything from doughnuts to hospitals, Rick Scott is trying to make his toughest sale: persuading voters to elect him governor of Florida.

Scott's campaign, with a heavy reliance on his fortune, is a product of savvy marketing, a simple message of jobs and careful management of access to voters and the media.

Rick Scott the TV image — bald guy who promises to create jobs — is well known. Rick Scott the man isn't.

"When you come from nowhere — and we started April 9 — no one knew us," Scott, 57, tells a crowd at a fundraiser at Captain Anderson's restaurant in Panama City. "I'm going to work my tail off to do everything we said we're going to do when we win. We're going to

turn this state around, create the jobs and we're going to run this state like a business."

In a year where voters seem to crave outsiders as never before, Scott is well positioned. If he wins, it will be on the strength of money, moxie and a rags-to-riches profile packaged through saturation TV advertising.

Funny thing, though: Scott can't stand to watch television.

"He loves to read. I never see my dad watch TV," says his eldest daughter, Allison Scott Guimard. "In two minutes, he either falls asleep or goes and does something else."

• • •

Already late on a Saturday afternoon, Scott speed-walks to a crowd of 200 tea party members enjoying vanilla and orange swirl ice cream at Mixon Fruit Farms in Bradenton.

Wearing the uniform of a "Let's Get to Work" candidate, starched white dress shirt with sleeves rolled, Scott leaps on stage with his entourage: wife Ann, daughters Allison and Jordan with their husbands, and his mother, Esther, who draws loud cheers from a crowd that recognizes her from a TV ad promoting her son.

"I'm not the smartest guy in the world. I had a mother that told me what to do all my life, and I traded that in for a wife," Scott jokes as Ann winces slightly. "We got married two years out of high school which is not what you tell your kids to do, right?"

After six months on the campaign trail, Scott is unpolished and at times awkward, talking too fast and sometimes too long. But crowds respond to his promises of smaller government and his blunt criticism of President Barack Obama's "job-killing" health care changes and stimulus program.

The tightly wound, hard-charging former CEO of the Columbia/HCA health care chain becomes as shy as a schoolboy when voters fawn over him. He tugs at the forearms of voters who have questions, then directs them to his website for more specifics.

When one asks for his autograph, he scribbles "Let's get to work — Rick Scott."

As Scott leaves the citrus plant, Tad Mackie of Sarasota shouts: "Hey, Rick! Your stage presence is getting a lot better. A lot better."

• • •

Richard Lynn Scott was born in Bloomington, Ill., on Dec. 1, 1952, the second-oldest of five children.

The birth date is significant, his mother recalls, because it was the last day to be accepted into public schools. As such, growing up, Rick was always smaller and skinnier than his classmates.

"He would have loved to play sports, but he just wasn't able to," Esther Scott says. "He was just smaller."

Rick's birth father was an abusive alcoholic, his mother says. She divorced when he was a toddler and married Orba Scott, a long-haul truck driver who adopted Rick. His adoptive father was a paratrooper and part of the D-Day invasion in World War II.

Scott held boyhood jobs selling TV Guide, working as a fry cook and cleaning phone booths ("the worst job I ever had," he says). The family left Illinois for Kansas City when Orba got a better-paying job for Navajo Freight Lines.

Rick Scott is 6-1 now but was 5-6 when he graduated from North Kansas City High ("the home of the Hornets") in 1970. He soon enlisted in the Navy — telling his mother without discussing it in advance, which upset her "a little bit," she says. "But if he's determined to do what he wants to do I would not have stopped him in any way."

Late in his senior year, he caught the eye of classmate Annette Holland, who'd just moved from Texas.

"It took him all week to ask me out, because he was too chicken," she says. "Normally I would have said, 'No, I'm busy,' because I didn't think it looked good to be free on a Thursday night for a Friday night. But I guess I really liked him. I made an exception and said yes."

On a Sunday in August, when Scott's campaign bus cruised through Tallahassee, Ann Scott asked the driver to make a detour so she could check out the Governor's Mansion, a stately two-story Southern Colonial.

"Very charming," she said of the capital city, where the Scotts hope to soon make their home.

• • •

While in the Navy and stationed in Newport, R.I., he and Ann salted away enough money to buy a Flavor Maid franchise doughnut shop in Kansas City to provide income for Rick's mother because Orba was disabled and couldn't work.

He soon acquired a second doughnut shop and realized that the profits were not in over-the-counter sales but selling dozens and dozens of doughnuts to corporate clients like TWA and local hospitals.

Business was so good, Esther Scott remembers baking all night.

Tens of thousands of glazed doughnuts later, Scott paid his way through law school at SMU, became a mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer in Dallas and met a wealthy Texas investor, Richard Rainwater. In 1987, they put down $125,000 each and bought two hospitals in El Paso, Texas, launching a revolution in the nation's health-care industry.

The Columbia/HCA conglomerate would balloon to more than 350 hospitals and 285,000 employees. It would make Scott rich and famous and ultimately lead to his undoing as America's top health care executive.

• • •

Scott is an intense, driven man. At Columbia/HCA he convened staff meetings at 6 a.m. on Mondays to the consternation of some aides. He's a teetotaler and nonsmoker who exercises at 5 a.m. and carries his own food sweetener on the road.

And — "he's not a big fan of losing," says his daughter Allison. "Not his favorite thing."

After moving to Naples, he quickly befriended the Rev. Kirt Anderson, who was losing his pastorship at the First Presbyterian Church in a dispute with the congregation's leaders.

Over lunch, Anderson was drawn to Scott: "I felt like I had found an exceptional guy, but I didn't know why," the pastor recalls. Anderson, with Scott's help, founded the nondemoninational and independent Naples Community Church, where Scott helped negotiate the purchase of a new building and serves on the board of trustees.

"He said to me, 'I've had some very difficult times in my past, too,' " the pastor recalls. "He said you can't let those things define you. He said you have to simply move on."

• • •

Six months ago, all most people knew about Scott was that he once ran Columbia/HCA, which paid a record $1.7 billion federal fine for Medicare fraud. Scott left with a golden parachute of $310 million. He moved from Connecticut to Naples in 2003, meeting Florida's seven-year residency requirement for candidates with just weeks to spare. He had never run for office.

Now he's doing what no Florida candidate has ever done: spent $55 million — so far — of his own fortune in pursuit of political power.

Why?

"Because I care about the country," Scott says. "I've lived the American dream. ... I want everybody in Florida to live the American dream. We've got to change our country."

Times/Herald staff writers Michael C. Bender and Marc Caputo and Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Rick Scott the TV image well known, Rick Scott the man is not 10/15/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 11, 2010 4:40pm]
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