TALLAHASSEE — The most powerful, unelected person in state government is a stranger to most Floridians, and that's exactly the way Melissa Sellers wants it.
Gov. Rick Scott's chief of staff is a 32-year-old practitioner of brass-knuckled politics who gets wide leeway. A Florida newcomer with limited knowledge of the state's political culture and history, she managed the governor's $100-million-plus re-election campaign and steered him out of a double-digit deficit in the polls.
A devout Christian and onetime divinity student, she was so combative in the Louisiana governor's office that the capital press corps spoofed her in their annual gridiron dinner as being always suited up in football shoulder pads.
As Scott stumbles through a disastrously rocky start to his second term, she is his fiercest advocate and perhaps his greatest liability.
Because Scott's style has been to defer to senior staff members, Sellers has unbridled political power.
The notorious "Fangate" incident in which Scott did not appear on stage for six minutes at the start of a live, televised debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan cooling him? That was Sellers' doing, indicative of her us-against-them, no-gray-area approach.
The ongoing uproar regarding the ouster of longtime Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey without proper authority from Scott's fellow Republicans on the Cabinet? Sellers "engineered" it after moving from campaign manager to chief of staff, Bailey says, in part because Bailey had balked at the Scott campaign's efforts to mix politics with law enforcement responsibilities.
Friends and allies say Sellers, Scott's fourth chief of staff in four years, has an uncanny knack for motivating a team, phenomenal organizational skills and a loyalty streak as bright as they come.
"Melissa is very intense, very passionate, very aggressive and very loyal to the team she works with," said Darrick D. McGhee, a Tallahassee lobbyist who worked as Scott's legislative affairs director when Sellers was communications director. "She can rub folks the wrong way, and I think she knows that. I think it's her passion."
Ruthless and tough, sure. Cynical and self-serving, never.
"It's hard to find people, especially in communications, who will be 100 percent all-in with your candidate. She is," said Curt Anderson, Scott's top political consultant who has known Sellers for most of her career and helped place her in Scott's administration after she served as a regional press secretary for the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa.
Sellers is a Texas native but a leader of what critics deride as the Scott administration's "Louisiana mafia" because she previously worked as communications director for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, another client of Anderson's.
"There are so many average people who work in politics, and Melissa's just really good," said Anderson, whose firm, On Message Inc., is based outside Washington, D.C. "The girl is really smart, she is a good writer, she is articulate, speaks well . . . and she has the ability to rally people and develop a sense of team and mission."
• • •
Chiefs of staff reflect their bosses above all, and a couple of phrases pop up constantly in conversations with people who have worked with Sellers in Florida and Louisiana: "us against them" and "bunker mentality."
Sellers has an easy smile that belies her intensity and can be as quick complimenting a woman's outfit as she is attacking the premise of a reporter's question or agenda. She declined to speak with the Tampa Bay Times for this story except for written responses to written questions, noting Scott's "great team" and the governor's appreciation for "bold discussions and vigorous debates."
By training and experience, Sellers is a communicator. A University of Texas journalism graduate, her first significant management experience was in running day-to-day campaign operations for Scott last year.
Reporters and spokespersons invariably have uneasy working relationships, but some communications professionals favor cordial, sometimes transactional approaches through which they try to manage the message with tips, off-the-record briefings or access. Not Sellers.
Guided by Sellers, Scott does not engage with the public as much as utter and repeat scripted talking points.
Capital reporters in Baton Rouge, La., remember Sellers as a gatekeeper who often favored shouting rather than conversation and who would sometimes, literally, use her body to block reporters from getting close enough to Jindal to ask questions.
"There's no doubt she brought a more aggressive posture to press row than had ever been the norm at the Capitol before, and it frayed some nerves," said Jan Moller, a former state capital reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune who described Sellers with respect despite Sellers' aggressive style having "permanently changed the culture of administration and media relations" in Baton Rouge.
"She was a zealous, hard-charging advocate for the interests of Bobby Jindal at all times, fiercely protective of her boss," said Moller, who works at the Louisiana Budget Project, a nonpartisan policy and budget advocacy organization. "She was not someone trying to promote herself. Everything she did was in the service of Bobby Jindal."
• • •
In a 3-year-old video about her faith, Sellers describes having grown up in a "very tense," religion-free household with "explosions of violence and anger."
Sellers, who is single, threw herself into her political career, which included a stint as an intern in the George W. Bush White House in 2003. "Worked all the time. My God was my work, and it wasn't filling the void in me," Sellers says, explaining how she found Jesus and purpose in Louisiana.
Sellers left the Jindal administration in late 2011 to study women's ministry at the Dallas Theological Seminary but was drawn back into politics to work on the GOP convention nominating Mitt Romney.
Asked about her seminary stint, the governor's office emailed a comment from Sellers: "I am excited to learn more about God, which is a journey of a lifetime."
She joined the Scott administration in fall 2012 and was elevated to run Scott's campaign at the start of 2014.
As much as Democrats chalk up Scott's narrow victory to his outspending Crist 2-to-1 in another GOP wave year, Sellers kept the wheels turning while leading the largest campaign operation in America and re-elected a governor who had been 15 percentage points behind a year earlier.
"No incumbent governor comes back from that. Just doesn't happen," Anderson said, lavishing credit on Sellers.
Proximity is power in politics and governing, so it came as little surprise that after a brutal and successful campaign during which she was constantly at the governor's side that Scott would elevate her to chief of staff. But she has no Florida policymaking experience, and even some admirers question whether a famously pugnacious communications pro long focused on conflict and short-term wins has it in her DNA to implement an actual agenda beyond trying to make the governor look good.
Sellers has reached out to several former Florida chiefs of staff, including Sally Bradshaw.
"It is an absolutely overwhelming job," said Bradshaw, who was only slightly older than Sellers when she took the post under Gov. Jeb Bush, but had lived in Florida and worked in Tallahassee nearly a decade beforehand. "You are breathing through a snorkel every minute of every day. You have no time to yourself. Whether it is a hurricane on the horizon, or a prison riot, or a problem with a child in the child welfare system, you are on the front lines of assisting the governor with those challenges."
Republican consultant Timmy Teepell, another Anderson colleague, managed Jindal's 2007 campaign and then became his chief of staff, with Sellers as his communications director for both jobs. As soon as he heard she would manage Scott's 2014 campaign, Teepell said he knew Scott would win a second term.
"She has got a lightning-fast processor. She stays cool, puts together action plans, she executes. And she won't take no for an answer. They will say, 'No, we can't do that,' and her response is, 'No, we need to do that,' " Teepell said. "When you're facing tough challenges, that's exactly the type of person you need. And on a personal level, she laughs easily, is incredibly kind hearted and always had this strong sense of what's right and wrong, what's fair and unfair, what's just. . . . She cares a lot for people."
McGhee, the Tallahassee lobbyist who used to work with Sellers, is also an ordained minister at a nondenominational Christian church in Tallahassee. He said he and Sellers talk frequently as friends about their faith.
"We share a love for Christ," McGhee said. "We do a lot of praying and talking together."
• • •
It's Sellers' job to make her boss look good, but the first few weeks of Scott's second term have been full of unforced errors. As the Bailey firing dominated attention, editorial cartoonists portrayed Sellers as a thug confronting Bailey with a lead pipe, and as an "invasive species" from Louisiana.
Scott could not even persuade rank-and-file party leaders to retain his handpicked favorite as state party chairman, an embarrassing loss in which Sellers also played a backstage role.
"Clearly, once again, the governor has failed to have a post-election honeymoon," said J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, who was chief of staff to former Gov. Bob Martinez.
"His relations with the Florida press haven't improved. I don't know whether it's a staff failure or an abiding antipathy against him."
Like Stipanovich, Sellers is the latest in a long line of Florida political operatives to make the switch to chief of staff. Sometimes it works, as in Bush's selection of Bradshaw, and sometimes it doesn't. Stipanovich put himself in the negative category.
"I've made so many mistakes that I could be a key adviser to any governor of either party," he said, "just by sitting in the corner of the room and saying every now and then, 'I wouldn't do that.' "
Sellers' lack of institutional knowledge about Florida worries key legislators, in part because others in Scott's inner circle are younger than 35 and are newcomers to Florida.
"Institutional knowledge is vitally important," said Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "My advice to her is to have somebody with her or around her who has that knowledge, to free her up to give the governor the best advice possible."
• • •
Sellers has held a Florida driver's license for less than two years, and even many Republicans in Tallahassee couldn't pick her out of a lineup.
"I think I met her once during the campaign," said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, an emerging leader in the Senate and chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee. "She's new, and frankly I haven't dealt with her."
Alan Levine, a health care executive who worked in the Bush administration, as well as in the Jindal administration with Sellers, said her tenaciousness should not be underestimated. But he speculated that the Bailey fiasco could have been partly thanks to Sellers' lack of perspective in understanding the delicate balance between the governor and the three Cabinet members.
"It would probably have been from a lack of understanding of how the agencies function together," Levine said. "People should give her the opportunity to get through this."
"She's one of the best young political minds this state has seen in many, many years," said Pat Roberts, longtime lobbyist for the Florida Association of Broadcasters. He said Scott's former general counsel, Pete Antonacci, is more to blame for the Bailey controversy than Sellers.
"Pete Antonacci botched this whole deal, and she's had to do damage control," Roberts said. "He was the adult in the room."
Scott heaps praise on Sellers, but since taking office in 2011 he has never shown reluctance to push out members of his administration when he feels it will serve his interests.
Sellers, however, is not planning on leaving any time soon, even with the prospect of her former boss, Jindal, running for president in 2016.
Where does she see herself in two years? Sellers responded in writing:
"Promoting Gov. Scott's positive pro-growth agenda for Florida!"