If you love or hate Rick Scott as governor, there's one man who deserves a lion's share of the credit or blame: Tony Fabrizio.
A cigar-smoking data-crunching pollster, Fabrizio is the person Scott insiders point to as being the brains behind the Republican's improbable transformation from political nobody to governor of the nation's most important swing state.
Fabrizio's role as Scott's pollster and strategist didn't end with the governor's election. He still plots strategy, hones the governor's message and polls for Scott by way of the Republican Party of Florida, which has paid him more than $183,000 since Election Day.
"During the transition, there was a belief that we're here to govern and politics is over," said Fabrizio. "Well, politics is never over. Now we have to think a lot more about the big picture. And there are a lot more opportunities."
Fabrizio, 51, is all strategy, all the time.
A Brooklyn native who grew up in Long Island, he loves the game of politics, intellectual combat, the science of polling and the art of harnessing and shaping public opinion. A recent Miami Beach transplant, his company, Fabrizio McLaughlin and Associates, remains headquartered outside Washington.
Scott counts Fabrizio as a trusted friend who "tells you what he thinks. Not what he thinks you want to hear," Scott said.
"He's a straight shooter. If he was a physician and you had a disease and you were going to die, his answer would be: 'You know, you're going to die,' " Scott said with a chuckle.
By that standard, Fabrizio hasn't had sweet words for Scott these days.
The governor's approval ratings are among the lowest of any governor in the nation. Scott says he doesn't care about his poll numbers, but that's a tough argument to make when he has one of the nation's top pollsters on speed dial.
Fabrizio's experience is vast, having worked for presidential candidates Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan; senators Connie Mack of Florida, Al D'Amato of New York and Bob Bennett of Utah; and former Govs. Bob Riley of Alabama, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Mike Foster of Louisiana.
Fabrizio said there's a difference between governing and campaigning.
"Campaigns are usually a choice between two people where your opponent can always be used as a foil. The candidates are often judged against each other. As an incumbent, there usually is no foil and the focus is 100 percent on you," Fabrizio said.
Scott's constant campaign
But Scott's administration still has a campaign feel to it. Under Fabrizio's watch, he's using another campaign consultant to make pre-recorded telephone calls to constituents to tout his accomplishments and the fact that the state is adding jobs.
Scott's political fortunes rest on jobs — the centerpiece of his campaign. He remains the political leader of the state with one of the worst economies. Nearly 1 million people are out of work. The housing industry is moribund.
Further tolling on Scott is the fact he lived up to many of his campaign promises, which had a hard-right edge that reflected the Republican-leaning sentiment of the electorate in 2010. He cut school funding and health care for the poor. He reduced state worker pay and is laying off thousands of others. He unsuccessfully called for an Arizona-style immigration-reform policy that outraged Hispanics and moderates and irked many of the powerful special interests in the state Capitol.
Scott also stirred up his fellow Republican lawmakers who control the state Capitol when he killed plans for an Orlando-Tampa bullet train by refusing $2.4 billion in federal money.
The outcry was fierce, particularly in the politically crucial I-4 corridor where the train would have run. Scott's decision became a national story.
"I don't think anybody expected high-speed rail to be as big a deal as it was. Politically, it was a 50-50 split," Fabrizio said. "We didn't know it would last like that."
As pressure mounted, Fabrizio sent out a Feb. 26 strategy memo to Scott's longtime personal friend and advisor, Enu Mainigi, and his chief of staff, Mary Anne Carter, with three talking points for the administration. They were: 1) the project didn't meet Scott's goals; 2) he doubted the federal government could meet the goals; and 3) the bottom line of the goal was that "taxpayers won't ever be on the hook" for the project.
Days later, in a Fox television interview, Scott mentioned he didn't want the state to be "on the hook" for the project.
Fabrizio always seems to be on the lookout for any potential problems that could bedevil Scott.
Three days after the election, as legislative leaders planned a show of force to override some of former Gov. Charlie Crist's vetoes, Fabrizio probed longtime Capitol hands to understand the nature of the relationship Scott would have with House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos.
"Would it set a bad longer-term precedent to allow Cannon and Haridopolos to flex their muscles this way so early in the relationship?" Fabrizio said in an e-mail to Pam Pfeifer, a Scott policy and budget adviser.
"YES," she replied, "but we may make it worse if we squeak too loudly instead of focusing on Rick's first 100 days and letting them do what they will."
Five days later, on Nov. 10 after Scott had met with Cannon and Haridopolos, Fabrizio read the press clips and rendered this assessment via e-mail: "These guys are NOT our friends and would love to castrate us."
Tactics, strategy and Willie Horton
The governor's communication director, Brian Burgess, said Fabrizio is a master of all political trades, and an expert in short-term political tactics as well as long-term strategy. He frequently bounces ideas off Fabrizio, who has an intuitive grasp of what's important to people.
For instance, as the spring lawmaking session wound down, the communications team wanted to play up that Scott racked up a win for cutting business taxes. They weren't emphasizing the property tax cuts.
"Talk about the property tax cuts because that's what really matters," Fabrizio said, according to Burgess. "That's what people care about. So we started highlighting it."
Fabrizio said he doesn't tell the governor what to say, but Scott will rely on him to shape a message — a challenge for the political newcomer who has a tendency to exhibit a shy, awkward manner.
"He doesn't back away from a fight," Fabrizio said. "He says okay, let's figure out how to message it, take the edge off it."
There's a bit of irony in Fabrizio taking the edge off of anything. He's known as a political assassin, having been one of the masterminds behind the infamous Willie Horton ad that helped George H. W. Bush portray opponent Michael Dukakis as soft on crime in the 1988 presidential elections.
"We knew people would go crazy," Fabrizio said. The networks had wanted to throw us off air, but we already paid them $1 million to run the ad. How many hundreds of millions of free air time did we get?"
Eight years later, Fabrizio worked for Bob Dole's presidential campaign along with Carter and Mainigi. He helped the Republican win the nomination by using political opponents to ruin each other's chances as Dole remained out of the fray. Journalist Bob Woodward mentioned Fabrizio's role in the campaign in the book The Choice, referring to him as "an attack specialist."
"Ask Bill McCollum," Fabrizio said, referring to the former Republican Florida Attorney General who was unexpectedly beaten in 2010 by Scott in the Republican primary.
Scott gets bitten by 'the bug'
In the hands of Fabrizio and Scott's ad men, McCollum was attacked as a "desperate career politician," a government insider loathed by the tea party movement. The campaign slightly adjusted the narrative to then beat Democrat Alex Sink.
The strategy was led by Fabrizio, who divined the campaign issues from polls. The campaign team would shape the ads using focus groups where viewers would register real-time responses with electronic hand-held dials.
In many ways, the campaign was a continuation of Scott's nonprofit political group, Conservatives for Patients' Rights, which he founded to fight President Barack Obama's health care plan. Shortly before Obama won election in 2008, Fabrizio was approached to work for Scott by Mainigi along with the firm that employed Burgess, CRC Media.
Scott flew his personal jet from Naples to meet Fabrizio for breakfast at the Four Seasons in Miami. Fabrizio remembers being impressed by Scott and the fact that the jet-owner used a cab to get around Miami instead of a chauffeured limousine.
"For a guy who was so successful I was struck with how unimpressed he was with himself," Fabrizio said. As the CPR campaign continued, Scott "started to get more bit by the bug" and decided to run for governor, Fabrizio said.
But first, Scott's family had to sign off on it. So before launching his campaign, they met for dinner with Fabrizio at Macaluso's restaurant on Miami Beach, where the menu is written on the chalk board and the fare reminds Fabrizio of his grandmother's "classic Italian peasant food." Fabrizio learned of it from veteran political attack man Roger Stone, another Miami Beach resident.
Over plates of meatballs and bottles of red wine, Fabrizio warned the family that Scott's past in heading up the Columbia/HCA hospital chain, which ultimately paid a $1.7 billion fraud fine after Scott left, would become a central issue because his candidacy would be akin to "dropping a stink bomb in the Republican Party of Florida's party. Their reaction is going to be vicious, visceral and unrelenting."
It was. Fabrizio estimated Scott endured $70 million in attack ads and fliers from fellow Republicans and then Democrats. But Scott survived thanks to $73 million of his own money.
Scott plays doctor
Fabrizio wasn't just motivated to win for political reasons. His relationship with Scott is deeply personal.
Long before the election, when Fabrizio had to be hospitalized for a stomach ailment at Mt. Sinai hospital in Miami Beach, Scott found out about it — even though Fabrizio tried to keep it quiet. The former hospital executive got on the phone and contacted his old friends who ran the medical and nursing staffs to ensure Fabrizio got the best possible treatment under Scott's remote guidance.
Fabrizio repaid the favor by guiding Scott to an improbable win in a volatile political state. He said Florida is a challenge — for any candidate or political party.
"In some respects it almost appears to suffer from political schizophrenia — one year delivering large victories for the GOP and the next for a Democrat presidential candidate," he said. "The question is, will 2012 repeat the pattern of 2006 and 2010?"
As a friend and die-hard supporter of the governor, he plans to stick by Scott through the 2014 elections and he predicts that, by the 2012 elections, the governor's job-approval ratings will equal or exceed Obama's.
"In a campaign, you always have the mindset that everything is a battle. Well, it's not. Some of the stuff people are whining about now, people won't even remember," he said. "This is a long ball game. It's four years and you have to keep that perspective."
Times/Herald staff writer Michael C. Bender contributed to this report.