Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink made her strongest case yet Monday night that she is the gubernatorial candidate with the best understanding of Florida and the ethical bearing required of the state's highest office. In a freewheeling nationally televised debate at the University of South Florida, Sink and Republican Rick Scott frequently sounded like replays of their television commercials. It was at times uncomfortable to watch because of the tension between the two, but Sink kept the upper hand and the cooler head. Scott continued to skirt questions about his stained business record, distort Sink's record and offer little clue that he knows much of anything about state government.
Scott, who has tried to make this race a referendum on President Barack Obama, has not been paying attention to what's been going on in Tallahassee the last four years, where billions in spending cuts have reduced the state budget. He contended Sink was part of the leadership that raised fees and taxes and grew government. But as the Democrat pointed out Monday, as CFO she had no role in setting fees raised by the Republican-led Legislature, whose leaders now back Scott. But she did shrink her office's spending and staff.
Sink effectively made those points. But in an early sign that Monday's debate was different from the last one, she aggressively countered Scott's false claims that she is an "Obama liberal.''
"I have always been a fiscal conservative," she said. "You cannot put that label on me."
Much of the debate covered familiar territory about Scott's leadership as CEO of Columbia/HCA, the giant hospital company that paid record fines for Medicare fraud. Scott refused again to provide any insight, and he tried to deflect questions by poking at Sink's record in the banking industry. But those banking issues are not in the same league as the massive hospital fraud, and Sink was not in the same leadership role as Scott. She effectively shut him down with a stare and the night's most memorable line: "You can't lecture me about fraud."
Scott continued to speak in rehearsed sound bites. He argued he would create more jobs as governor but offered no specifics. He repeated misstatements about Sink's proposals, and she repeatedly corrected him and said her plans do not call for tax increases. Sink noted her plans call for delivering tax breaks to any business that hires more Floridians. And she clarified that her hopes of giving state workers pay raises or investing in pre-kindergarten would need to wait until the economy rebounded.
Ultimately, however, policy was in short supply Monday night as it will be in the coming onslaught of negative campaign ads. Voters should discount the scare tactics. The most offensive one at the moment is Scott's baseless claim that Sink — not the worldwide economic collapse — bears sole responsibility for state pension fund losses.
As debate watchers saw Monday night, Sink has the grit and command to lead Florida. She sounded more genuine and more direct. Scott gave voters little more than he has delivered in six months of self-financed campaign ads, baseless attacks and vapid promises. Florida deserves better than that. Fortunately, voters have a much better option.