Tuesday, July 17, 2018
Politics

Orlando shootings: Where is the line between empathy, political exploitation?

ORLANDO — The mass shooting that pierced Orlando's summer calm and stunned the nation also became a high-profile, and risky, platform for the state's ambitious politicians.

For days, Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi joined Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer as regular fixtures before the banks of television cameras in the media village that emerged in the police periphery outside of the Orlando nightclub.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio used the event to announce he had "been deeply impacted by" the mass casualties from an act of home-grown terrorism and was therefore reconsidering his decision not to run for re-election. Democratic state legislators called for a special session on gun reform. And Donald Trump sent a Tweet announcing the massacre was proof he was "right on radical Islamic terrorism."

But elected officials also used the event to show empathy and command the resources of their offices to help in the recovery and, when it came to meeting mourning families and traumatized responders, most officials kept it private.

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden flew in Thursday to spend more than two hours talking with the families of victims, but they banned reporters and photographers from recording their visits.

And Scott, who began the week meeting mourning families, closed the week attending the funerals of six Orlando-area victims. He amended his public schedule twice — to publicize the fact that on the third day after the shooting the president still hadn't called him personally — but when the governor met with grieving families, he kept those details out of the limelight.

"We're not publicizing any of the funerals or memorials because he wants to respect their privacy," said Jackie Schutz, the governor's communications director.

It is the age-old balancing act that politicians have had to navigate as they try to manage how much exposure to get in the wake of a heart-wrenching tragedy or a natural disaster.

Elected officials have to think about the long-term impact of the optics they send while also being careful not to be perceived as exploiting the tragedy for political gain.

In addition to Rubio, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, flew in from Washington and made their appearance before the news cameras. All but Nelson are expected to be running for re-election in November, and while the networks want big names to feed their wall-to-wall coverage, politicians are willing actors.

By contrast, one politician was notably absent from the limelight. Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who lives two miles from the Pulse nightclub where the shootings occurred and serves as vice president of external affairs for Orlando Health, the hospital blocks from the nightclub whose trauma center treated the most of victims. He was at the scene Sunday afternoon but kept his distance from the cameras. Gardiner is not running for re-election.

"It's a balancing act of being as helpful as you can and staying the heck out of the way," said Cory Tilley, who was former Gov. Jeb Bush's communications director. "Unfortunately, there is no playbook for this. You have to go through it to know what to do."

Bush's smooth handling of seven hurricanes over two years in 2004 and 2005 not only helped his approval ratings in statewide public opinion polls, it also "drove him crazy," Tilley said.

"Jeb's ratings were at the highest when he left office, and the polls always said it was because people saw him as a leader who made tough decisions and always followed through," he said. "His policy initiatives never really polled that high, but his perception as a leader had a lot to do with his response to the hurricanes."

Being on the wrong side of the fine line public officials must walk can be costly. In 1993, Gov. Lawton Chiles went to Miami during a spate of attacks on tourists to announce increased law enforcement efforts to hunt criminals who prey on visitors. After the announcement, Chiles took off his tie and donned a bulletproof vest to ride in a Highway Patrol car to tour the area around the airport. He never lived it down.

After three days of network news appearances this week, the exposure backfired for Bondi. CNN's Anderson Cooper seized on her consoling remarks to the gay community and her touting a telephone hotline for families of possible shooting victims to get information about their loved ones.

Cooper, who is gay, asked if it was "hypocritical to portray yourself as a champion of the gay community" after she unsuccessfully fought to uphold the gay marriage ban in court. Florida taxpayers paid $493,000 for the failed legal fight.

Bondi responded that she was just upholding Florida's Constitution. The next day she blasted Cooper during a radio interview. "Yesterday wasn't the time nor the place — in front of a hospital — when we could have been helping victims," she said.

Steve Vancore, a Democratic political consultant, said that the non-stop media clock discourages a public pause in partisan bickering in the aftermath of tragedy.

"We all rush to our partisan corners and politicize the issue, and that prevents us in the long run from working together in a nonpartisan way to come to real solutions," he said. He advises his clients to refrain from saying anything in the aftermath of a tragedy because "even non-political statements serve a partisan purpose."

Ron Sachs, a media consultant who was Chiles' press secretary, said there are two rules of thumb for public officials to keep in mind: help and humanity.

"The best thing a leader can do is to marshal the forces of government, but on a personal level it means the world to people to see their top leaders just reflecting a level of humanity that they would to a neighbor," he said.

He recalled how during the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, Chiles greeted a man who had lost his home, put his arm around his shoulder and walked with him "away from the cameras," and the time Chiles eagerly waited until a New York tourist, who was attacked and torched by a street gang in Tampa, had improved enough to take the governor's call.

"I listened to our governor say the words that any citizen would want him to say," Sachs recalled: " 'I want you to know how sorry all the people of Florida are that this terrible thing happened. This is not what our state is about.' "

"The best moments are the genuine gestures a leader makes in those situations without cameras and scribes," Sachs said.

Scott encountered the gratitude that came from his quiet gestures of comfort Wednesday night. The governor had spent the day meeting privately with the families of victims, commending responders and finding ways to provide state assistance. That evening he accepted an invitation to attend a prayer vigil at the Joy Metropolitan Community Church in Orlando.

The church's membership supports and includes the LGBT community — a community the conservative governor has rarely embraced and often antagonized with his opposition to gay marriage. The meeting was not detailed on the governor's public schedule and he refused to allow the media to take pictures.

As Scott stood up to deliver remarks to the audience of about 40 worshipers before the service began, he received a standing ovation from the diverse crowd.

Scott spoke in Spanish first. "My heart goes out to the victims of the shooting," he said. He then switched to English. "It's an act against our LGBT community," he said. "... It's an act against our way of life."

The next night, Scott traveled to Kissimmee to attend the wake for Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera. During his 20-minute visit, Scott said a prayer with the family, offered condolences and told them to call him if they needed help.

"If you have an issue where you think I can be helpful, call me," he said he told them. "And if I can, I will."

Miami Herald reporters Alex Harris and Joey Flechas contributed to this report. Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] Follow @MaryEllenKlas.

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