TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott welcomed African-American legislators to lunch Tuesday at the Governor's Mansion, but his choice of words left some feeling more alienated than ever.
In discussing his own humble origins, Scott suggested all black lawmakers grew up poor.
"I grew up probably in the same situation as you guys," Scott said to the group of 20 Democrats. "I started school in public housing. My dad had a sixth-grade education."
Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa, said she was offended by the remark, but did not protest at the time because she said it was more important to have a productive dialogue with the new governor.
Afterward, she said, "He assumed that everyone (in the room) was poor and that can only be because you're black."
Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, said Scott's choice of words was unfortunate even if he was trying to "empathize" with the black caucus.
"Some of us might be from the projects, but we come from all spectrums of life," Gibbons said.
"I grew up in the projects, too," said Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando. "I would hope he would be sensitive to his own background. We don't want a handout, but some jobs."
For an hour over lunch, the lawmakers voiced opposition to Scott's plans to end state support for two historically black colleges, to abolish a state office that helps minority-owned businesses get state contracts and to lower unemployment benefits and health care funding for the poor. They also expressed concern that Scott so far has not appointed any black agency heads and asked him to stop using the term "Obamacare."
To the issues raised by the group, Scott was unyielding.
• On funding: "We don't have unlimited dollars," he said, repeatedly emphasizing his No. 1 priority, creating jobs, which he said would benefit all Floridians.
• On lack of diversity in his appointments: He said philosophy — not skin color — would drive his decisions. "I don't believe in quotas," Scott said. "I didn't pick Jennifer Carroll because of the color of her skin. I'm going to pick the best people I can find."
• On the health care law: "It's Obamacare to me. That's what it is," Scott said. When lawmakers asked him to call it by its formal title, the Affordable Health Care Act, Scott said: "You know, when I'm on Fox, they never call it that." Scott was on Fox News again Tuesday, his third appearance in 17 days, and he slammed Congress for not repealing the law. The lunch's lightest moment came when Scott jokingly called it the "Non-Affordable Health Care Act," and lawmakers applauded.
Scott is a conservative Republican who dislikes government, and most black lawmakers are liberal Democrats who believe in the power of government to help people, especially the poor.
The luncheon had a number of tense moments, even though Scott's lieutenant governor, Carroll, is an African-American and well-liked former House member. She was seated across from him at the mansion's long, rectangular dining room table.
Asked to appoint more black judges, Scott said: "If you think I'm going to pick someone who's different from my judicial philosophy, it's not going to happen."
He rejected a request by Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, to preserve the Office of Supplier Diversity, which helps minority-owned businesses get state contracts and is funded by fees paid by minority vendors.
"That's a tax," Scott said.
Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, praised Scott for selecting new public safety chiefs who believe in emphasizing prevention over punishment.
"That's why they're there," Scott said of corrections chief Ed Buss and Wansley Walters at Juvenile Justice. "We've got to do a better job of keeping people out of prison."
Times/Herald staff writer Michael C. Bender contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.