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Gov. Rick Scott's chief of change: Steve MacNamara


Change for Gov. Rick Scott has come quickly this summer.

He hung up the jacket and tie and opened his collar. Walls inside his Capitol office were moved and painted, carpet ripped up and replaced.

Scott started meeting with newspaper editorial boards and replaced one of his most important agency heads.

But the biggest pivot for the political outsider is this: hiring Steve MacNamara, the man who suggested those changes.

If there's a card-carrying member of Florida's political elite, it's MacNamara, a 58-year-old Tallahassee lawyer whom Scott has entrusted to help him resuscitate dreadful poll numbers and blaze a new path in state politics.

But while Scott campaigned against special interests and insiders, MacNamara was described in the press as a "longtime Capitol insider."

Eleven years ago.

MacNamara's resume reads like a roadmap of Tallahassee institutions.

He has managed Republican campaigns for governor, headed a state agency and worked for two of the most powerful lawyer-lobbyist firms. He directed a pair of policy think tanks. And he's a tenured professor at Florida State University.

MacNamara may be the first Floridian to serve as chief of staff for a House speaker, Senate president and now governor.

Colleagues say MacNamara is exactly what Scott needed. At $189,000 a year, he's the priciest chief of staff.

State Sen. John Thrasher, R-Jacksonville, said Scott is more relaxed and approachable since MacNamara started in July.

"The governor's got an enormous amount of energy and Steve can help focus that in the right places," said Thrasher, who as House speaker in 2000 hired MacNamara as chief of staff.

For all of his access to the powerful, MacNamara's job as professor extends his reach to the rank-and-file: He has launched careers for countless students, finding them internships or invaluable first jobs.

"Because of the relationships he has, if there's an issue he says, 'I know this person, I can make some phone calls,' " Scott said. "That's helped."

• • •

A fast talker with a receding hairline, MacNamara is a creature of comfort.

Visitors will find candy jars, a popcorn machine and a stash of wine in his office, which is furnished with a couch and an oversized HD computer screen.

Friends describe MacNamara as charming, highly intelligent and a devout Catholic. Thrasher said he doesn't like to be touched or shake hands.

He has been endlessly ribbed by his book club of high-powered politicos for his pick: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

"Painful to read. Russian prison genre," said Sally Bradshaw, a Republican strategist and longtime friend of MacNamara's. "He will never live it down."

Over an FSU career that started in 1984, MacNamara has won several teaching awards and students rank his classes as excellent or very good. But after he won tenure in 1994, a few faculty members noted his lack of a doctorate degree and raised questions about political favors.

"Steve's position has always been somewhat unique in the Department of Communications," said Andy Opel, an associate professor of communications at FSU. "While he was an effective teacher, he never functioned under the traditional guidelines of a faculty member at a research university with publication expectations."

Those close to MacNamara acknowledge a temper hot as it is quick. He speaks bluntly, unconcerned about whom it might upset.

But he declined to be interviewed for this story and didn't want it written.

"Steve can rub people the wrong way, which fascinates me because he's so good with people," said Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, MacNamara's close friend, who as dean of the FSU law school first pushed to give MacNamara tenure. D'Alemberte currently represents the St. Petersburg Times in First Amendment cases.

• • •

MacNamara learned to pull the levers of government as an intern for the late Dempsey Barron, a powerful Panhandle Democrat who reigned over the Senate for three decades.

"He's Machiavellian in his politics," Thrasher said of MacNamara. "He understands the give and take and knows how to get things done."

While under contract for Thrasher in 2000, MacNamara was accused of improperly lobbying for a cement company. The Ethics Commission found probable cause to investigate but cleared MacNamara after three years.

As chief of staff for Senate President Mike Haridopolos earlier this year, MacNamara watched as Republican senators revolted against leadership, forcing an unexpected overtime session.

But the agreement MacNamara helped write to extend the session limited the bills lawmakers could debate, preventing the House from approving a pair of measures Haridopolos wanted.

"Believe me, I've analyzed those last hours a lot this summer," said Haridopolos, who considers MacNamara among his best friends.

"I'm not going to blame Steve or point any fingers," Haridopolos said. "When he realized it was not coming in for a landing, he laid out the options and we chose the narrowest option. He was level-headed."

• • •

MacNamara, who has a military sense of organization and control, has tightened staff access to Scott.

Gone are Scott's daily morning meetings with top advisers. Staff still gathers but instead with MacNamara.

The state spent almost $80,000 to double the size of his office and paint and recarpet other first-floor offices.

MacNamara helped orchestrate the abrupt resignation of Corrections Secretary Edwin Buss after just seven months on the job.

MacNamara raised enough concerns over major prison contracts that Buss was resolved to his fate when he arrived last week at a meeting with Scott and MacNamara after the Capitol had closed.

"Steve is smart, he understands you and is in control of his emotions," said Republican strategist Mac Stipanovich, who ran a lobbying office with MacNamara in the '80s. "What that means is you have a guy who is either a great friend or a terrible enemy."

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet and Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Michael C. Bender can be reached at

. Biography

Stephen Raymond MacNamara

Age: 58. Born April 15, 1953, in Pennsylvania.

Experience: Chief of staff to Gov. Rick Scott (July-present); chief of staff to Senate President Mike Haridopolos (2009-11); chief of staff to House Speaker John Thrasher (2000); Florida State University, Department of Communications, professor (1984-present); College of Law, assistant/associate dean (1984-97); Pennington, Moore, Wilkinson, Bell & Dunbar (2009); Florida Association of Health Plans, co-founder (2000-03); Collins Center for Public Policy, director (1990-92); Florida Department of Business Regulation, secretary (1989-90); Fowler, White & Boggs (1987-89); Group W Cable, general manager (1983); Skip Bafalis for Governor, issues director (1982); campaign manager for Claude Kirk for Governor (1978); campaign manager for Bruce Smathers for Governor (1974, 1978).

Family: Married to Liberty Taylor; divorced from Mary MacNamara; three adult children.

Education: University of Florida, bachelor of science in journalism, 1975; Florida State University, law degree, 1982.

Gov. Rick Scott's chief of change: Steve MacNamara 09/01/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 1, 2011 11:12pm]
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