Tuesday, July 17, 2018

For Gov. Rick Scott, Jennifer Carroll was political liability

TALLAHASSEE — Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll's surprising resignation spares Gov. Rick Scott a decision that increasingly looked inevitable: to drop her as his running mate in 2014.

Carroll looked good in 2010 when Scott, a political neophyte, had little else going for him other than his vast personal wealth. Her military record and race brought diversity to the ticket, but in office she turned into a political liability by violating a cardinal rule.

She became an embarrassment to Scott and a distraction from his agenda.

The CEO-turned-governor who takes pride in hiring the right people was forced again to see a top appointee step down, this time in disgrace.

It's particularly embarrassing because Carroll was Scott's public partner and represented his first big political decision.

"It's very disappointing to have to bring this news to you," Scott said Wednesday. "My focus, as you know, is getting our state back to work."

Scott has parted ways with state agency heads who flopped, hired three chiefs of staff in 18 months and overhauled the communications shop that shapes his message.

And as he has tried to shift focus from his controversial about-face on Medicaid expansion to his more popular goal of increasing teachers' pay, Carroll's resignation drowned out other messages and horrified Republican activists, adding new turmoil in Scott's world.

"This entire thing was such a shock," said Cindy Graves of Jacksonville, a friend of Carroll's and president of the Florida Federation of Republican Women.

In their first appearance after winning office in 2010, Scott, with Carroll by his side in a Fort Lauderdale hotel ballroom, said: "Jennifer and I are going to surround ourselves with absolutely the best people out there."

Then, one by one, eight agency heads came and went in Scott's first two years, and with the uncertainty of the 2014 election approaching, more are expected to leave.

Slowly but surely, the Scott-Carroll pairing looked awkward.

The latest sign of Carroll's growing irrelevance came last week. In Scott's annual State of the State address to the Legislature, Carroll merited a passing one-sentence mention. The Miami port director, Bill Johnson, received more time.

Scott called Carroll "tireless" Wednesday, and once described her as the hardest-working lieutenant governor in the country. But if she was, it was hard for anybody to see.

She had few duties other than chairing a board promoting the space industry, and every time she made news it seemed to be negative, to the point where it was widely believed Scott would have chosen someone else to be his running mate in 2014.

He dodged that question Wednesday.

"It doesn't matter now," he said.

Carroll is a former lawmaker who was used sparingly to push Scott's agenda through the Legislature. She's an African-American who was largely silent when black lawmakers recently assailed Scott's record at hiring minorities for judgeships.

Most embarrassingly, she's a decorated 20-year U.S. Navy veteran whose downfall stemmed from ties to Allied Veterans of the World, which authorities say was a criminal enterprise that exploited veterans to make money. Allied Veterans was a client of Carroll's public relations firm.

Scott said his aides were on orders to find any campaign donations from Internet sweepstakes cafes and to donate them to charity.

Supporters said they did not think Carroll's resignation would hurt him politically.

"I know how the governor feels. I'm sure he has a sense of concern and regret," said Senate President Don Gaetz, a former health care executive. "One of the things I've learned in business and in politics is that people are sometimes reluctant to tell you everything that they have done in life."

"This is not a reflection on him," Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said of Scott.

Scott does not plan to name a successor to Carroll until after the legislative session ends in early May.

In an extended absence of a lieutenant governor for the first time in decades, Attorney General Pam Bondi is next in line if Scott cannot serve.

The guessing game has begun and will intensify in the weeks ahead, and that too will be a distraction for Scott, who wants to focus on only two things: a $2,500 pay raise for teachers and a sales tax break for manufacturing equipment purchases.

Lately, Carroll and Scott rarely spoke face to face, and they did not even speak when she quit Tuesday afternoon. A stoic Scott then attended a fundraiser, a mansion reception and the Capitol press skits that satirize political events of the past year in Tallahassee.

Scott knew Carroll had resigned — but the public didn't. In a crowd of more than 800, he watched as Carroll was lampooned as a running mate who didn't get enough respect.

In one of her last public appearances at a dinner honoring Scott two weeks ago, Carroll gushed about how well she and Scott clicked when they first met in 2010.

"We couldn't stop talking," Carroll told a dinner of GOP women in Tallahassee. Later that day, she said, he telephoned her and asked her to be his running mate, and she was taken aback by the suddenness of it.

"I was stunned. I asked him, 'Are you sure?' " And he goes, 'Well, yes,' " Carroll recalled.

Scott's next running mate will be followed with great intensity because he remains an unpopular leader, especially with women. He needs to bolster his image along the decisive I-4 corridor from Tampa to Daytona Beach.

"I hope he will be thoughtful about it and take his time and get the best person that he can get," Thrasher said.

Hours after Carroll's resignation, South Florida political observers took to Twitter to promote Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, for the job. Their hashtag of choice: #Anitere4LT.

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

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