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Scott's bumpy start highlights holes in staff

TALLAHASSEE — The brain trust that masterminded Gov. Rick Scott's campaign is no longer at his side to help sharpen his message, shape his policies or navigate Florida politics.

They're gone.

And in their absence, Scott's two-month transition into office has been a bumpy one.

But Scott downplays any turbulence, saying he's had fun fulfilling several campaign promises in his first days.

"I enjoy it," Scott said of his first week as governor. "My goal is all the things I campaigned on. I'm going down my checklist trying to make sure I make them happen."

Still, despite his eagerness to follow through, it hasn't all been smooth sailing.

• Scott promised to run state government with the efficiency and precision of a CEO, but dozens of agency heads and division directors still have not been hired. Most notably, he hasn't named appointees to run any of the state's three agencies overseeing family issues and health care. For the six agency heads he has hired, Scott hasn't released their salaries.

• Within minutes of taking the oath of office Tuesday, Scott slammed the brakes on hundreds of new rules, saying he was fulfilling a campaign pledge to "freeze job-killing regulations." But many of those rules lower fees on businesses, and Scott has been unable to name one regulation worth halting.

• On Wednesday, Scott ordered the state air fleet to be sold, only to say later it was the Legislature's job. Scott reversed himself Friday, saying that indeed he could sell the planes.

Scott is also negotiating new territory with an aggressive state press corps.

Brian Burgess, Scott's director of press relations, has complained about stories that stray beyond the administration's message of the day.

"You're making news and you're using my guy to do it,'' he said Friday about a story on Scott's views on casinos. "Leave my guy out of it when it's not on the agenda."

As the Legislature resumes committee meetings Monday in preparation for the spring lawmaking session, Scott has just weeks to finalize a recommendation for the budget that accounts for a $3.5 billion shortfall. And he must find lawmakers to sponsor bills to advance his ambitious agenda of expanding school vouchers, cutting taxes and reducing unemployment.

"I'm sure he would like to be further ahead of where he is," said Ken Plante, a Tallahassee lobbyist and former state senator who worked as the legislative liaison for former Gov. Jeb Bush. "But you don't really understand until the election that you have a certain amount of time for some of these things."

Traditionally, new governors, senators and representatives lean on their campaign staffs in the transition into office.

The previous two governors — Charlie Crist and Bush — installed their campaign managers as chiefs of staff.

But Scott let his campaign manager, Susie Wiles, return home to Jacksonville after the inauguration.

Pollster Tony Fabrizio, who accurately predicted where and when Scott's opponents would target attacks, has been disengaged. Arlene DiBenigno, Scott's top political adviser who worked in Bush's and Crist's executive office, will not join the administration. Communications director Jennifer Baker returned to Tennessee to start a family.

Matt Parker, head of the Scott campaign's field operation, was in line to become executive director of the Republican Party of Florida. Instead, he drove home to Louisiana last week to rejoin Gov. Bobby Jindal's team.

The former staffers would not comment on the record for this story, other than to say they left on good terms with Scott.

After the election, Scott put his transition in the hands of Enu Mainigi, a corporate lawyer who has advised Scott since a 1997 Medicare fraud scandal forced him out of Columbia/HCA, the hospital company he founded.

Mainigi has helped surround Scott with much of the staff from Conservatives for Patients Rights, the group Scott created to oppose President Barack Obama's health care changes in 2009, and the type of "Tallahassee insiders" Scott criticized during the campaign.

Scott's general counsel, Hayden Dempsey, who worked in the administrations of former Govs. Bob Martinez and Bush, lobbied last year for 23 clients. Scott's legislative affairs director, Jon Costello, lobbied for 13 clients, including HCA Healthcare and Miami-Dade County.

Mary Anne Carter, the executive director of Conservatives for Patients Rights, is now the "chief policy adviser" in Scott's executive office. Carter, a policy adviser during the campaign, is one of four workers in the governor's office making at least $148,000.

In comparison, no staffers in Crist's executive office earned that much. His highest-paid worker was chief of staff Shane Strum, who earned $147,055. The next highest paid was Crist, who earned $130,273. (Scott, a millionaire, is not taking a salary.)

Burgess, the head of communications, who held a similar position in the final weeks of the campaign, also worked for Conservatives for Patients Rights. Jordan Karem, who helped with event planning for Conservatives for Patients Rights and Scott's primary campaign, flew to Tallahassee last month for a job as legislative affairs director at the Department of State. But he has since moved to Washington, D.C.

But if Scott's first week in office was bumpy, it was also busy.

He issued four executive orders minutes after he was sworn in. He toured a Miami charter school with Michelle Rhee, a national figure in education circles, visited a new Disney cruise ship sailing out of Port Canaveral and met with Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara.

"Gov. Scott has a pretty good concept on a lot of the things he wants to do," said Plante, the Tallahassee lobbyist. "But is he going to get them all done in the first session? Probably not.

"His second session will be better. He's going to be all right."

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Michael C. Bender can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @michaelcbender.

Scott's bumpy start highlights holes in staff 01/08/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 8, 2011 9:23pm]
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