Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Politics

Gov. Rick Scott's ex-fundraiser warned of trouble with Hispanic voters in explosive email

TALLAHASSEE — Weeks before resigning as a top fundraiser for Gov. Rick Scott's re-election campaign, health care executive Mike Fernandez revealed deep misgivings about a team of advisers he said is afraid to challenge Scott and is "homogeneous in its thinking."

Fernandez's lengthy email, obtained by the Times/Herald, exposes for the first time the private campaign turmoil that led to his abrupt resignation as finance co-chairman last week.

He said too many of Scott's advisers are from outside Florida; the campaign has not done a compelling job telling the story of Scott's poor origins; his Hispanic business partner was subjected to "cultural insensitivity" by campaign aides on their way to a Mexican restaurant; and advisers ignored his call for better oversight of campaign spending.

"The team is united but homogeneous in its thinking and seems to be feeding off each other and scared of disagreeing with the Governor," Fernandez wrote. "I am not a yes man and don't mistake my smile and courteous nature as a weakness. So I will continue to speak my mind as I owe it to Rick. Anytime you want me out, just tell me and I will go away with a smile."

Fernandez, 61, a Cuban-American and a billionaire in the health care industry, fired off his complaints to three people: campaign manager Melissa Sellers, senior adviser Curt Anderson and chief fundraiser Meredith O'Rourke. He asked that his grievances be forwarded to Scott, "the man we work for."

Fernandez's most explosive accusation remains in dispute, with the campaign saying it never happened.

In his Feb. 20 email, Fernandez said a business partner, identified only as Luis, heard a Scott campaign staff member "mimicking a Mexican accent."

"It's culturally insensitive for him to hear a senior staff members (sic) mimicking a Mexican accent on the way to Chipotle. It shows that the team does not understand the culture YOU need to win," Fernandez wrote on his iPad.

Dismissing the accusation, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera said Monday: "There's no validity that we can find to any of those comments, or what was written. This is a diverse organization. We don't tolerate inappropriate comments and I don't believe they even happened."

Fernandez's email confirms he did not hear the remark first-hand, as Scott's campaign began saying more than a day after the story broke last week. The campaign repeated Tuesday that the slur did not occur.

"Mr. Fernandez wasn't in the van. There was no comment," said Greg Blair, a campaign spokesman.

Fernandez remains a loyal Scott supporter, and he opened his Coral Gables mansion Monday for a $25,000-a-couple Scott fundraiser featuring 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. But the aftershocks of his resignation and the bluntness of his email are a distraction for the campaign and amplify the Democrats' strategy to emphasize that Republicans can't relate to Hispanics.

Two Miami Democrats on Tuesday called on Scott to fire whoever uttered the slur.

Miami-Dade Democratic Party chairwoman Annette Taddeo and Ana Rivas Logan, a former Republican legislator who recently became a Democrat, said Scott's passive reaction to the controversy shows an unacceptable tolerance of bigotry.

"Rick Scott's campaign staff mocked Florida Hispanics like school children," Rivas Logan said. "That's unacceptable from the people trying to elect a governor in one of the most diverse states in the nation.''

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, chairman of Scott's re-election campaign, acknowledged turmoil in the campaign and Fernandez's frustration.

"You get high-powered people like Mike Fernandez, who's a CEO and used to being in charge," Thrasher said. "But there can only be one person in charge, and that's the governor. ... Sometimes there's frustration with that."

Late Tuesday, the implosion in Scott's campaign reached a national audience, including national donors Scott is courting in what's expected to be the costliest race for governor in Florida history.

Politico reported on a second Fernandez email in which he complained of a "lack of experience" among Scott's advisers. He singled out campaign manager Sellers, 31, accusing her of denying him access to Scott and quoting her as saying: "We need to be paranoid in the political world."

Sellers declined to comment and referred questions to campaign spokesman Greg Blair, whose statement referred to TV ads aimed at his likely challenger, Democrat Charlie Crist, and said: "All the Democratic Party has is lies and distractions."

Politico reported that Fernandez ominously warned in his Feb. 21 email that if Scott's low poll numbers don't improve, lobbyists who have written checks to Scott's campaign "will slowly disengage and throw their support behind our opponent." Politico reported that Curt Anderson, a senior adviser to Scott, called Fernandez a "renegade donor" with an "honorary title" and that Scott shouldn't be held responsible "for every bizarre email" a donor sends.

Fernandez, who has given $1 million to Scott's campaign and helped raise $35 million more, has declined to comment since Friday and did not release the email, which mirrors concerns voiced by other Republicans that Scott isn't doing well enough in the polls against Crist.

Campaigning in Tampa on Tuesday, Crist said: "If Rick Scott's campaign is making jokes about how Hispanics talk, that's unconscionable and they need to get to the bottom of it."

In his email, Fernandez used the allegation of Mexican-accented English to complain about how Scott's team is unfamiliar with Florida and its large Hispanic population.

"Would you hire me to manage a campaign in Mississippi for a country bumpkin? I hope not. We have one Texan, one guy from Wisconsin, I don't know where Tim (a brilliant guy) is from, but I guarantee you he is not from Florida, and one smart mercenary strategist," Fernandez wrote in reference to deputy campaign manager Tim Saler.

Saler is from New Jersey and has been a GOP operative in that state and Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Mississippi.

"I truly believe that the difference in this race is the Hispanic vote," Fernandez wrote. "But what do I know, I have only made over a billion selling to this population."

Fernandez and Scott share similar rags-to-riches stories.

Fernandez, a penniless immigrant who came from Cuba at age 12, is chairman of Coral Gables-based MBF Healthcare Partners, which controls the Navarro Pharmacy chain and various health insurance plans.

Scott spent part of his childhood in public housing, became a mergers-and-acquisitions attorney and built the nation's largest hospital chain, Columbia/HCA.

"As we heard at every stop, the Governor's life is not known, and it's his most powerful story. People need to know that he understands them... That he lived what they are living through," Fernandez wrote. "We must define him early in March as a feeling, sensitive, caring man who has come from nothing to where he is today. That he is doing this not for money but for the love he has for the people of Florida. He needs to be defined before he is defined for us."

Scott's campaign did in fact launch a biographical TV ad this month that emphasizes those themes, and it will air a new ad starting Thursday that attacks Crist for calling the unpopular Affordable Care Act "great."

Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Shelley Rossetter contributed to this report.

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