The Florida Farce: Rick Scott Vs. Charlie Crist

Come on down to the Sunshine State and see everything that is wrong with American democracy

Florida Governor Rick Scott and Former Florida Governor Charlie Crist. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

If you want to forecast the fate of the nation, it's tempting to play the Hillary and Mystery Date 2016 guessing game. But that's like determining wedding cake ingredients by the plastic bride and groom on top. If you want a picture of America two terms from now, ignore the national stage and gaze instead at the states, where failure is confirmed before it's applied to the rest of the country.

Look to a Ponzi state running eternally on the next out-of-town sucker, administered by a gerrymandered GOP hammerlock and overseen by a man who the president of Public Policy Polling once said could be trounced by "a ham sandwich." That man is Florida Governor Rick Scott, who bought one election and feels like having another, who — depending on your point of view — makes the Sunshine State either more of a national punchline than it already is, or a paradise where every political malignancy can sizzle and bloat before coming home to fuck up wherever it is you live. Meanwhile, the man sent as an alternative to the theory that government's job is to die quietly is Charlie Crist, a Republican conveniently converted to Democrat, for whom even long-time friends say pursuing policy takes a distant second place to holding office as an end in itself.

That Rick Scott is a Republican is no surprise. He has a classic up-from-his-bootstraps story that doesn't involve a coal-mining immigrant granddad but actually features himself. And like so many conservative biographies, it's ideologically impure — estranged from an abusive father, raised at points in public housing, getting a government job, starting a business in part via GI benefits, eventually becoming CEO of Columbia/HCA, the nation's largest private healthcare company, which grew by undercutting non-profit hospital fatcats with cutthroat private bottom-line policies.

Why he ever wanted to become a Republican candidate remains bit of a mystery, because while CEO of Columbia/HCA, the company was assessed the largest penalty for Medicare and Medicaid fraud in history. In yet another instance of the GOP Cult of the Leader at work, Scott presented the ideal candidate because of the success of his business, which was owed to his vision; the fact that it ultimately paid nearly $1.7 billion in penalties for a criminal enterprise was someone else's fuckup. Scott himself admitted to exercising his Fifth Amendment privileges in a civil deposition 75 times when it might relate to the federal investigation of Columbia/HCA — not to use his right to avoid self-incrimination but because he didn't want to indulge a "fishing expedition." That's not a legitimate application of the Fifth Amendment. Your chief executive at work: a man for whom the rules of the justice system are just, like, this hassle.

His 2010 candidacy felt spectacularly surreal because, to paraphrase something I wrote then, he was a proud, self-celebratory embodiment of unpunished white collar crime. It was like seeing the executives of Merrill, AIG, Lehman Brothers and Countrywide simultaneously going through Senate confirmations to the Federal Reserve while drawing fingers across their necks at the committee chairperson and mouthing the words, "YOU'RE NEXT." Scott could run on his record only in the most oblique and vacuous manner, since floating away via golden parachute after bumping your revenues by defrauding the federal government is not a viable state economic model.

Instead, Scott snorted the Tea Party miasma and duly acted as if his gubernatorial opponent were Barack Obama and health insurance. If elected, Scott would move the State Capitol from Washington, D.C. back to Tallahassee. To sell this vision, he insulated himself from campaign accountability in almost every respect. He sent his own mother to a news conference as a substitute, refused to subject himself to interviews from newspaper editorial boards and ducked debates. Reporters were ignored with an almost princely disdain and fed bland focus-group-tested answers to unrelated questions. He instead largely campaigned on television, pouring over $73 million of his own money into saturating the state with ads whose studio magic made him look like an approximation of a human being. It didn't work. Florida residents and critics nationwide simply call him Voldemort.

Once in office, the limitations of running on his record and as not-Obama immediately showed. Despite going on to set the record for one-term executions since 1970, he admitted he hadn't considered the responsibility of signing death warrants before he decided to run for office. In fact, the Tallahassee rumor mill suggested he wasn't even aware that he physically had to sign each order. His office maintained the same level of lockout contempt for the press corps and expressed dismay and outrage at the "partisan" criticism of the office. Such micromanaged disdain for access and devotion to imaging doubtless increased focus on the revelation that Scott made a show on the trail of adopting a rescue dog, then ditched it once it had served its purpose. The secretive nature of the Scott administration continues to this day, with revelations that Scott and aides used private emails and private phones to circumvent the state's Sunshine Laws.

Meanwhile, despite claiming on the stump that he would create 700,000 new jobs in seven years, on top of the projected job growth of 1,000,000, for a rate of roughly 242,857 jobs per year, Scott almost immediately ratcheted his pledge down by 1,000,000, claiming he merely needed to create 700,000 jobs total. This is akin to pledging 2 billion years ago to build a grand hotel and canyon on the site of the Colorado River, then showing up 2 billion years later to take credit for the Grand Canyon and hope everyone forgot about the hotel. And, as the Tampa Bay Times reports, he still comes up short according to his own office, reporting growth of 620,300 jobs in four years, far short of the 971,428 he should be on track for. Worse, even his own office's numbers are fudged, because they don't count public sector job losses — despite the fact that they are jobs — because, well, fuck 'em. Factor in jobs lost to Scott's budget slashing and elimination of regulatory oversight — 15,000 in just the first eight months alone — and he's only at 594,900.

In fact, Scott's crowning moment of Non-Obamaness came early in his term, when he rejected $2.4 billion in free stimulus money to nix a high-speed rail system between Tampa and Orlando, which is currently served by the nightmare of I-4 and daily intercity commute and vacationer traffic. Two independent firms concluded that the rail line would have run at a "$28.6 million surplus in its tenth year" and create 49,900 "job years" through 2014, with 1,100 permanent jobs thereafter. Instead, Scott trusted the negative estimates of the Libertarian Reason Foundation. Which is a cool place.

As of 2014, he's still listening to them. Rather than accept the burden of $2.4 billion in no-strings attached federal funds for rail in one of the state's busiest corridors, Scott has added a minimum $3 billion (and potentially up to $6 billion) debt to Floridians for 169 miles of "toll lanes" in Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando and Tampa. As the Tampa Bay Times reports, the idea of "first class" and "coach" driving lanes comes from Bob Poole and the Reason Foundation, which receives funds from companies that benefit from more cars and more road construction, including a company based in Florida that already manages two Florida toll roads. Moreover, Scott's Secretary of Transportation joined the administration from "HNTB, the Kansas City-based construction company that specializes in infrastructure projects including toll lanes."

Even if Crist wins, he loses.

Which is fine; more cars on the road belching exhaust means nothing to a giant peninsular state whose highest point is a grand 345 feet above sea level and whose premiere city is essentially doomed to drown. Scott has repeatedly defended his refusal to create "job killing" regulation on climate change (despite the fact that — again! — regulation is a job) because he's "not a scientist." When plenty of people who are scientists offered to meet with him, he gave them 30 minutes and emerged totally unaffected by the persistent and accredited intrusion of objective reality. Which is par for the course in GOP epistemology.

Despite not being a scientist, Scott had no trouble fighting federal clean water standards, limiting Big Sugar's liabilities for cleaning up the shit they pump into the Everglades or slashing $700 million from state water management districts while offering Department of Environmental Protection employees bonuses for speeding up "permitting" for private companies.

Despite not being an educator, he knows charter schools are the answer and that it's important that Florida school districts can't consider whether current charter applicants have had previous charter schools fail. He knows how to trumpet adding $1 billion to the education budget and omit previously cutting $1.3 billion from it.

Despite not being a jurist, Scott has stuffed 26 judicial nominating commissions with flunkies, rejected Florida Bar recommendations to the commission 19 times and produced a reliable majority of white, male conservative justices.

Despite not being an economist or politician, he's pledged a $1 billion tax cut that is politically totally infeasible and economically makes no sense.

Despite not being a child care specialist, he knows how to celebrate a token increase of $31 million to the child welfare budget after the deaths of 40 children in state care ruined the optics of his call to cut $179 million from those programs.

Despite his expertise in the health care industry, he can reject the essentially free Medicaid dollars from Obamacare, reverse course and say he would accept the money — knowing full-well the overwhelmingly GOP legislature would never let him — then waffle until his stance is unclear.

It's all a pattern that fits with the selective competence of Republican Leadership. He's not a doctor, but he can throw red meat to conservatives by likening medical marijuana to alcoholism and addiction, then punt responsibility to the ballot initiative process. He's not gay, so it's not his place to criticize Attorney General Pam Bondi's appealing a judicial overturning of the state's gay marriage ban. He's not a social worker, but he can mandate that state employees and all citizens on welfare get a mandatory drug test—and wind up spending more on the tests and defending them in the courts than was saved by kicking people off the welfare rolls. (But, hey, the kind of tests required were just like ones offered by the Solantic Corporation, whose shares he moved into a completely independent trust in his wife's name!) Lastly, while he's not a politician, he can be governor. While he's not an economist, let him fuck around with tens of billions of dollars. He's absolutely in charge up until the point someone siphons, say, potential votes or enough Medicare money to get slapped with $1.7 billion in federal fines.

And he's going to win again, because he's raking in out-of-state money, PAC money and prepared to spend up to $100 million — to say nothing of his personal fortune — on ads and is already dwarfing Democratic opponent (and former Republican governor) Charlie Crist's budget. He can avoid the press, pretend the occupant of the White House is his current opponent and hammer viewers with ads running misleading Obamacare numbers and concluding: "Charlie Crist, what he's selling is Obama."

He can even distract from his record at Columbia/HCA by trying to paint Charlie Crist as a crook, fuck it up and still get away with it. Two weeks ago, the Scott team started blasting Florida with an ad called "Swindled." It features Florida investor Dean Kretschmar claiming to have been swindled by Charlie Crist and a Ponzi schemer named Scott Rothstein. Not only did Kretschmar not make this accusation against Crist in his lawsuit against Rothstein, he got most of his money back. Further, the accusation of impropriety made against Crist (which investigators deemed unfounded) is that he sold judgeships to Rothstein by putting him on a judicial nominating commission in exchange for donations. The twist, as the Miami Herald reports, is that Kretschmar's attorney is "a Scott donor and GOP operative" named William R. Scherer and that "Scott appointed Scherer to a JNC post in 2011. The next year, Scott appointed Scherer’s daughter, Elizabeth Ann Scherer, to a circuit court bench." No one watching the ad would have any idea that the accusations made against Crist are flimsy at best and better directed at Scott himself, and in any event, there will be a dozen new ads by the end of October, because any problem is a small problem when you can paper over it with hundreds.

It might be worth getting angry if Charlie had much of a chance to win or to govern or was even that much of an alternative.

To win, Crist needs to motivate Democrats in an off-year election, which lean heavily toward Republican turnout. To do that, he's running on and off his record as a former Republican career politician, which infuriates Republicans and forces Democrats to cherry-pick the parts of Crist's record they want to believe are constant and true and not just the products of his whimsy and glib eagerness to please. The latter is probably an exercise in self-delusion.

What made Crist dynamic as a Republican, beyond his effortless ability to connect with voters one-on-one, was a vaguely populist nose-thumbing at Republican orthodoxy. But radicalism within the tent is small beer outside it. The air of populism he cultivated in going after government mismanagement as chairman of the State Senate Commission on Executive Business, Ethics and Elections made ideological sense as a member of the party that considers government a problem. Even his populist moves, like suing energy companies over rate hikes, were sold as much as small-business initiatives as anything else. And his unpopular lefty stances on the environment could go right out the window when his political needs aligned with big industry — like being willing to reconsider Florida's offshore drilling ban the moment John McCain came sniffing about a potential place on the 2008 presidential ticket. His conduct as governor — swanning into office just before noon and out the door by three, delegating policy downward and cramming complex issues into bullet points, playing hooky to glad-hand with swells — likewise only serves you as a citizen if your politics dictate that government's job is to exist as little as possible. Apply those standards to a Democratic candidate, and you've created a feckless political operative immediately abandoning the purpose for which he seeks election, substituting a party designation and electoral opportunism for actual governmental change. Aside from his official party registration, Charlie Crist is a Democrat only if you are a Republican.

That's not to say he isn't trying. Despite formerly murmuring properly about life, he says the right hands-off Rockefeller Republican things about women's bodies and privacy, hoping to motivate young women voters and those on the fence. And he's reaching out to the African-American community, highlighting his history of extending early voting and of addressing the civil rights impacts of a racist criminal justice system by restoration of voting rights to felons (something Scott has done the opposite of, including vigorously disenfranchising legal voters).

This last is important, because Crist needs to approach Obama's turnout levels among African-Americans in the Fort Lauderdale-Miami Dade areas and in the rest of the state. Currently, he faces pushback from that community, because he's supported the solidly Democratic teacher's union's lawsuit against charter schools — schools which many African-Americans enjoy as a means of escape from underfunded public schools in depressed neighborhoods. Poor Charlie's still too much of a Republican and too worried about scaring Panhandle crackers from the land of the "Christian School Established about 24 Hours After Brown v. Board of Education" to campaign on the only reasonable solution — which even The Onion gets—that maybe it's a racist, classist nightmare to keep funding schools on the basis of neighborhood tax revenue as opposed to a fixed amount per child, period. Sure, that's a fantasia, but so is a Florida Democratic mandate and Charlie Crist being a liberal. The most forceful thing he's said on that account is a reverse formation of Ronald Reagan's explanation for going from New Deal Democrat to movement conservative: "I didn't leave the party; the party left me."

Even if Crist wins, he loses. The State of Florida is still gerrymandered all to fuck, meaning that something like half of all Republicans in Tallahassee would have to be caught with dead hookers or live boys to make the legislature competitive. And it's still absurdly corrupt — before he pleaded guilty, the Jim Greer trial threatened to rope in numerous elected officials and operatives, including Crist, while sitting senator and darling of Tea Party fiscal responsibility Marco Rubio paid no price for misuse of State GOP credit cards and close ties to a man accused of bribery. Even when it's not overtly unlawful, Crist would have to work with a legislature that, for instance, gave career hack Jimmy Patronis (a man with no industry experience) a position on the Public Service Commission in order to remove a potential competitor for the seat of outgoing Senate President Don Gaetz, for which his son Rep. Matt Gaetz is running, despite his DUI arrest that was preposterously dismissed. (Full disclosure: Matt Gaetz was on the debate team of a high school drama/debate program for which I provided drama coaching and judging, though I do not believe we ever spoke.) It's not like the Public Service Commission matters, though; it only settled for hanging $3.2 billion on Florida taxpayers for one broken power plant and one never-built. Meanwhile, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie — a man getting probed more than an alien abductee in This Ain't The XXX-Files: A Porn Parody — can stand outside Jimmy Patronis's restaurant and say of Rick Scott, "Do not let this good, honest man get away from this job," and nobody in the crowd thinks to set fire to everything in sight until the ground is razed and left bare to grow something more useful, like kudzu.

The fact is that Crist at best has the chance to impotently pursue an inert centrist policy amid an American Legislative Exchange Council paradise, where guns are plentiful, ground may be stood but government intervention goes all the way up the fallopians, more cars are welcome, the Everglades are bulldozed, the fight is still being taken to the gays, public transport is nonexistent, schools are profitable and results optional, prison is worth investing in, voting is discouraged, income tax is nil, and revenues outside a tiny corporate flat tax and property taxes rely on regressive service taxes, sales taxes, bed taxes and transactional fees. Meanwhile, even if the company you were responsible for committed a historic act of fraud, you can sink $73 million of your own dollars into running as an outside entrepreneur and buy yourself a governorship despite all the charm and human relatability of a dripping sack of bleached tumors.

And maybe, to change all that, you get Charlie Crist, ex-Republican, who will run the state like a business, or maybe not bother to run it much at all, while nodding more telegenically at the Everglades, women, gay people and minorities. This is the kind of grand political spectrum Florida and the nation offers its citizens, and this is your future. You can have a Republican, or you can have someone who is basically a Republican with varying degrees of empathy. Or, in more brutal terms, the difference between Charlie Crist and Rick Scott is the difference between a Republican and a Republican who is overtly evil or insane.