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Robocalls from Gov. Rick Scott jangle some Floridians

The calls have been coming almost every week, the same amiable voice on the other side of the line.

"Hi, this is Gov. Rick Scott. I wanted to personally call and share some very encouraging news about our efforts to get Florida back to work. … Unemployment is down for five straight months, bucking the national trend."

On Friday, Scott's recorded voice told an undisclosed number of Floridians how he's cutting property taxes, a reference to his cutting back water management districts. Before that it was about fighting drug abuse and vetoing "wasteful special-interest projects" by fellow Republican legislators.

Political robocalls are nothing new in the final weeks of a campaign season, but for the first time anyone can recall, Scott has the state GOP paying for regular recorded calls touting his day-to-day accomplishments. It's part of his continuing effort to bypass the traditional media and communicate directly with voters.

"The benefit is, we get our message out," Scott explained on Tuesday, while in Washington. "It allows us to tell people what we're doing. Part of my job is to let people know what I'm doing all the time."

The personal touch has its appeal. On the other hand, a lot of Floridians don't exactly relish unsolicited robocalls.

"We are all used to getting robocalls during campaign season, but to continue to get them AFTER the election is unprecedented and extremely disturbing! … Funny how a guy that preaches limiting government intrusion in our private lives is DOING JUST THAT with this harassing robo-phone campaign,'' e-mailed Republican Steve Allbritton of Palm Harbor.

Technically, it's political party intrusion, not government intrusion, because state party campaign donations are paying for the calls, which can cost as little as 2 cents each.

That doesn't necessarily make them more appealing, of course.

"I'm on a 'Do Not Call' list, I work out of my house, and I really don't need extra calls,'' said Odessa resident Kathy Winarski, a registered independent who was "a little frightened" the first time she picked up the phone and heard Scott's voice. "Why's he bothering me with this?"

Nearly 13 million Floridians have signed up for the federal and Florida Do Not Call list, but politicians are exempted from those lists. The late state Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, tried unsuccessfully to have the Do Not Call amended to include political calls, but today only a handful of states ban or restrict political robocalls.

Shaun Dakin, founder of the National Political Do Not Contact Registry, has been tracking robocall trends for about five years and said Scott is the first public official to use them for regular updates on his activities, rather than for campaign purposes. "At least from the Twitter traffic and e-mail traffic that I'm monitoring, nobody seems to appreciate it."

One online reverse telephone directory found dozens of complaints about the calls on Scott's behalf:

"Had three pre-recorded calls from 800-466-5370 today. Called Gov. Scott's office. They referred me to the Republican Party of Florida. The poor girl who answered the phone there said she's been flooded with complaints. She wrote down my numbers and promised to forward them to the appropriate department for removal from their list," wrote one person.

And another: "Whoever this is STOP!! I don't know who or why, but my mom is elderly and feels she needs to get to the phone with this same number that calls 15-20 times a day. ENOUGH!! I don't care who or what it is … we don't care, we just want it to go away."

Republican Party spokesman Trey Stapleton said "the percentage of complaints has been minimal. However, we do take each of them seriously."

Though not required to, he said, the party is removing the names of people who don't want to be called.

The calls have antagonized some Republican officials too, particularly when Scott touted his budget vetoes and added money to schools. He did not mention that the Legislature actually put more money into schools than Scott requested.

Former state Rep. J.C. Planas, a Republican from Miami, received one of the calls himself and noted that the phone service hid the source of the call — a practice called "spoofing" to cut back on ignored calls. "It's bad enough that he's hurting my community with these vetoes and misrepresenting the purpose of them," Planas said. "But then he's spoofing my phone? Why?"

The robocalls aren't the only Scott image-boosting technique that's backfiring among some. Scott was lampooned Monday night on The Colbert Report comedy show for asking citizens to e-mail a form letter to newspapers that lauded the governor. "Now those anti-government tea partiers who elected Rick Scott can have the government write their letters for them," Colbert said.

In addition to encouraging people to write letters to newspapers praising his record, Scott, who is struggling with the lowest approval numbers of any current governor, has been scheduling more time talking to local radio stations. "This isn't a popularity contest,'' he said Tuesday. "This is a contest to make our state the No. 1 place to do business, and that's what I'm going to do."

Times/Herald writers Alex Leary and Marc Caputo contributed to this report, along with Times researchers Caryn Baird and Natalie Watson.

Correction: Palm Harbor resident Steve Allbritton was among those complaining about receiving unwanted recorded phone calls from Gov. Rick Scott. An earlier version of this story misspelled Allbritton's name.

Robocalls from Gov. Rick Scott jangle some Floridians 06/28/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 29, 2011 4:11pm]
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