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Message-driven Gov. Rick Scott's answers dodge the questions

TALLAHASSEE — When it comes to answering questions, Florida Gov. Rick Scott is an artful dodger.

He bobs. He weaves. He changes the subject. He walks away with "have a great day" after enduring the part of his job that he seems to like least.

Politicians famously parse their words, switching to talking points as they strive to "stay on message." Scott claims he's not a politician, but he dodges questions so often that it prompts questioners to voice exasperation, even on live TV.

In Orlando, Scott recently sidestepped questions about why it's taking so long to fix a new state website that handles unemployment claims.

"For the fourth time, he did not answer our questions," WFTV's Lori Brown told viewers.

When she asked about the botched website, Scott said his priority was to help people get jobs, so Brown waited for Scott to walk to his car and asked if it was his job to fix the system. But all she got was an "excuse me" as Scott walked past.

Scott's closest adviser, chief of staff Adam Hollingsworth, said the way Scott fields questions reflects his priorities.

"The governor is on a mission," Hollingsworth said. "It's to create jobs, grow the economy, improve the education system and attract new business. … His answers to questions are reflective of that."

Scott has avoided answering questions about: how well his staff checked out former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who was forced to resign last year over ties to a questionable veterans' charity; whether Florida Power & Light should be allowed to raise rates on consumers; whether it was right for Attorney General Pam Bondi to ask that he delay an execution because it conflicted with her campaign fundraiser; whether the state should sell flood insurance to homeowners; and whether he agreed with Republicans in Congress who were willing to risk a federal government shutdown last fall to end funding of Obamacare.

"What I agree with is the fact that the buck stops with the president," Scott said in response to the shutdown question.

Ron Sachs, a public relations executive who has been a reporter and spokesman for former Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, said Scott's approach is not so different from other politicians.

"It's not unusual for an elected official or a corporate executive to fly by reporters' questions they don't like and answer the question they wish had been asked instead," Sachs said. "In our business, we call it a 'bridging' technique. But there's got to be a balance between being responsive and staying on message."

• • •

Scott told Politico last year that the biggest adjustment he faced from his private life as a hospital executive to being governor was the constant presence of reporters.

"The difference is, there's just a lot more media," Scott said. "There's always press, all the time. That's the biggest difference."

He regularly travels the state attending events where he usually takes a few questions from reporters who raise topics unrelated to his visit.

The unfailingly polite Scott says, "I'd be happy to answer your questions."

Then he doesn't.

In Clearwater in November, Scott attended a groundbreaking for a storage company's expansion. When WFLA's Mark Douglas asked Scott how a registered sex offender got a state license as a massage therapist, Scott replied by saying how "exciting" it is that Florida's crime rate keeps dropping.

"You didn't answer the question, governor," Douglas shouted from the media pack.

Scott-speak can be maddeningly vague at times.

Twice last month, he was asked whether Florida would accept federal money to cover more uninsured people under Medi­caid. Scott, who backed expansion of Medicaid last year, answered this way on Dec. 10: "I'm concerned about cost, quality and access to health care."

The next day in Tampa, he was asked to clarify what he meant and said: "Here's my concern. It's going to impact the cost of health care, the quality of health care and access to health care. Have a great day."

Puzzled reporters asked Scott's press office for another clarification. The cloudy response: "There's no new update."

The topic of the uninsured also prompted a frustrated Bloomberg Television anchor, Erik Schatzker, to interrupt Scott mid sentence in a November live interview when Scott mentioned jobs and education in response to a question about how more people can get health insurance.

"Excuse me if I interrupt you for just a second, and pardon me for doing so," Schatzker said, waving his hands in apparent frustration. "I know that you want people in Florida to get a job."

• • •

Scott appears more relaxed in long-form, sit-down interviews. A recent example was on WPBT in Miami as Helen Ferre interviewed Scott in a living room setting and let him talk at length about his favorite subject: the Florida economy.

But Ferre wanted a yes-or-no answer on whether Scott favors the Common Core standards for students, and his reply deftly avoided one: "My goal is, have high standards. Measure everything. Reward success."

Ferre wanted to know what Scott thinks of Charlie Crist as a 2014 gubernatorial opponent, and he answered by saying how much he wants his three grandchildren to get jobs.

On CNN a year ago, Scott evaded Soledad O'Brien's questions about what forms of gun control he would support after 26 people, including 20 children, were killed at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

"Okay. I think, with all due respect, you are not going to answer my question, because I guess, I just want you to tell me what you would be comfortable to support," O'Brien told Scott. "But I think there have been a number of things on the table and I don't feel like you're telling me. You know, should people not be able to buy high-capacity magazines? What are you willing to say would be a good start?"

Seated before an image of the Miami skyline, Scott said: "Well, you know, my focus on things like this is, one, respect the families, mourn their losses, make sure our schools are safe, and then start the conversation and listen to Floridians."

He declined in 2012 to say which Republican presidential candidate he voted for in the state's primary, and he would not say last month whether top aide Hollingsworth was being considered as a possible lieutenant governor.

After the U.S. Supreme Court's same-sex marriage rulings in June, Capitol reporters asked Scott how he would feel about a petition drive in Florida that would legalize the practice.

"Oh, gosh," Scott replied. "I'm focused on making sure everybody in our state can get a job."

Contact Steve Bousquet at sbousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Message-driven Gov. Rick Scott's answers dodge the questions 01/10/14 [Last modified: Saturday, January 11, 2014 11:36pm]
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