PENSACOLA — Gov. Rick Scott arrived in this Panhandle city Friday night to the catcalls of more than 150 teachers, union members and Democratic activists protesting his policies.
Inside the New World Landing banquet hall, Scott hit on familiar policy themes of creating jobs, freezing state regulations, dismantling the growth management agency and rejecting $2.4 billion in high speed rail money from Washington.
"I got elected to represent you, the taxpayers of the state. It's not fair to you," Scott said of the rail project. "They're putting pressure on me. (Vice President) Joe Biden complained about me this week."
The crowd at the Escambia County Republican Party's annual Lincoln Day dinner applauded when Scott said teachers will be paid based on merit and ability, not seniority, and said he will expand charter schools and abolish sinkhole insurance.
"We're stopping all those things," Scott said.
He said he's "shocked by how many people are in the Capitol every day."
He said it makes no sense to provide more affordable housing when the state's real estate market has collapsed. "They wanted me to fund more affordable housing. The whole state's on sale," Scott said.
Outside, the sign-waving protesters were upset with proposed cuts to public schools and proposed changes to public employees' pension plans.
They ridiculed Scott as being beholden to rich Floridians. One woman carried a hand-lettered sign that said F(D) CAT stands for "Florida doesn't care about teachers."
"It's just wrong to balance a budget on the backs of people who need the most," said Ida Nissen, 74, a retired Pensacola teacher. "I think they ought to put more taxes on people who can afford them. We've got a lot of billionaires in this state."
Rhonda Chavers, leader of the nearby Santa Rosa County teachers union, said Scott's narrow victory over Democrat Alex Sink should have compelled him to try to unite Floridians.
"We're very disappointed in his lack of response to unite the state," Chavers said.
Scott had no comment on the protesters, but the local Republican Party chairman didn't seem to mind: "It's a good party when you get protested," Susan Moore said.
State Rep. Doug Broxson of Milton called Scott the most apolitical person he's ever met," who's willing to do what's right even though it means peril to his personal reputation."
Not everyone was so effusive.
David Morgan, the county's Republican sheriff, said Scott needs to do a better job of explaining his policies to Floridians.
"Any time you change things, you have to articulate a plan," Morgan said, "and some of his plans and programs haven't been well articulated."
Scott ended his half-hour speech on an upbeat note, saying Republicans need to remember that the main reasons they won last year is because they favor lower taxes and smaller government.
"This is absolutely the best time to be governor," Scott said.