TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Rick Scott has stockpiled millions for a focused TV ad campaign and is backed by a highly disciplined Republican Party, but all it took to throw them off stride was one rich, angry donor with a send button.
Coral Gables billionaire Mike Fernandez was co-finance chairman of Scott's campaign, gave $1 million to his re-election effort and helped raise much more by opening two of his homes to wealthy Republican donors. He sat near the first family at Scott's State of the State speech three weeks ago before everything fell apart with his resignation followed by leaked emails laced with frustration and armchair quarterbacking, a rare public display of campaign dirty linen.
Nearly a week after the controversy, Scott hasn't addressed it, and passed up two chances to clear the air Wednesday. In Scott's defense, some Republicans say Fernandez hurt his own credibility, and Scott's, by undermining the campaign in incendiary emails to GOP insiders.
"You settle these things behind closed doors. You don't go outside and publicly humiliate the governor. Mike broke the code," said lobbyist Brian Ballard, a Scott supporter and member of finance teams of statewide and presidential candidates.
Ballard said Fernandez lost sight of his true role: He's expected to raise money, period, and has no power to dictate strategy.
"Some finance people don't understand their role. They think they're smarter than anyone in the room," Ballard said. "Mike's a good guy, but I think it was smart for him to step away."
A disgusted Fernandez relinquished his title last week after three of his emails, leaked to the Times/Herald and Politico, questioned the judgment of Scott's advisers and the quality of his ads and his Hispanic outreach. He also complained about a lack of access to Scott and accused unidentified campaign aides of mimicking a Mexican accent in front of his business partner, a charge the campaign denies but will not discuss in detail.
"He is a very wealthy man who's accustomed to having people jump when he speaks," said J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, a lobbyist and GOP strategist who ran two campaigns for governor and dealt with many temperamental donors. "He's going to quit if he doesn't get his way, and he's not going to do so quietly. He should have kept his mouth shut."
Stipanovich said the controversy is a test for Scott's young advisers, none of whom have run a governor's race in Florida. He said they must accept that the blunt emails are fascinating because they allow a peek behind the campaign's curtain.
"These things are irresistible because they're so personal," Stipanovich said.
A frustrated Fernandez saw problems everywhere he looked. Scott's campaign manager, Melissa Sellers, can be "paranoid," he said, and Scott's chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, has a knack for "making enemies out of much-needed friends," Politico reported.
He said Scott's new TV ad, the centerpiece of a $2.2 million effort that seeks to portray Scott as humble and caring, is "sterile (and) reinforces how people see him."
The controversy has been riveting to prominent Republicans such as Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who wonders why it seems to be taking so long for Scott's campaign to move beyond an episode that erupted last Friday.
"I've been reading it all with interest," Putnam said. "It has not blown over quickly, and it's unfortunate that it continues to drag on in the papers. I would hope the campaign would find a way to move past it as quickly as possible."
Fernandez is a highly successful health care entrepreneur who came to the United States as a poor boy from Cuba — an ideal symbol of a successful pro-businessman who could help Scott court Hispanic votes.
He may have assumed that Scott's young team of political advisers would respect his success and value his opinions.
Nearly a week later, they are still coping with the ugly fallout that included Scott's TV adviser, Curt Anderson, labeling Fernandez a "renegade donor" in a Politico interview.
In his emails, Fernandez repeatedly cites his wealth and success in business.
"Trust this, my net worth exceeds $3B, and I made it because I am not stupid and I can sell!" Fernandez writes in a March 15 email that trashes the new Scott commercial.
"Donors invest in a candidate and are often not shy or subtle about doling out campaign advice," Republican strategist Ana Navarro said. "The sweet spot is having them involved without having it turn into micro-management of the campaign. Keeping donors happy takes special skill and can be tricky. If the donor is a billionaire, it can be a billion times trickier."
Navarro said the controversy sheds light on a festering problem for Scott. "Mike's right when he rings alarm bells about Scott's need to focus and improve numbers with Hispanics,' she said.
The public messiness has to be unsettling to Scott, a stickler for courtesy and propriety.
As reporters waited for him to appear in the Capitol on Wednesday, Scott opted to take part in a routine meeting by phone instead. At an afternoon appearance at Jefferson High School in Tampa, he avoided addressing the issue altogether.
"Oh, gosh, he did a great job," Scott said of Fernandez. "I've got a great, diverse campaign team. … We're going to have a great campaign."
Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Patty Ryan contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.