Cara Jennings was sitting in a Gainesville, Florida, Starbucks last week, doing some work for the labor union where she is a contract recruiter, when she noticed Gov. Rick Scott and a gaggle of aides waiting in line for coffee.
Their exchange began with Jennings — who served as city commissioner of Lake Worth from 2006 to 2011 — asking the governor why he signed a law defunding Planned Parenthood, and ended with Scott scuttling out of the coffee shop empty-handed, Jennings calling after him, “Shame on you, Rick Scott. You’re an embarrassment to our state!”
Scott was apparently embarrassed enough by footage that emerged of the encounter that on Friday his PAC, Let’s Go to Work, released an attack ad characterizing Jennings as a latte-swilling, Internet-surfing welfare queen.
Jennings tells Rolling Stone she stands by her assertion that Scott is an “asshole” — though there are a few other names she’d like to call him as well — and says she hopes the video will raise awareness about the gap in health care coverage for low-income Floridians that she scolded Scott about on film.
The video that has been circulating online begins in the middle of your interaction. How did it all start?
I don’t typically go to Starbucks. Usually I work at the library. The library was closing so I reluctantly went to the Starbucks and I was just doing work on my laptop and I glanced up and saw the profile of the governor. And at first I wasn’t even positive that it was him and I said “Gov. Scott?” and then he turned and I realized it was him. So I calmly asked him why he passed that awful law that restricts low-income women’s access to health care. Throughout our entire engagement, he would never answer any of my questions. In fact, when I asked him why he passed the law, his response was, “I don’t vote on laws.” This is what we see constantly from Gov. Scott: He doesn’t answer the question you’re asking. He always has some PR line or some way to step around the question.
I asked him, “Why would you pass this bill? Don’t you understand that is reduces options for low-income women to access health care?” He wouldn’t answer. I tried to share with him my personal experience of using Planned Parenthood services. He told me, “You should go to the county health clinic.” You have a sitting governor giving a constituent health care advice in the middle of a Starbucks. I’ve dealt with other elected officials — it wasn’t the tone of, Hey, let me introduce you to my staffer, they can help you figure out how to access the resources you need. It was more of a, I’m not funding Planned Parenthood, you can go to the county health clinic tone.
You also asked him about losing your health insurance…
I tried to talk to him about how I, up until recently, fell into the Medicaid gap he’s created in our state. Upwards of 800,000 people are unable to get affordable health insurance in Florida because they fall into the Medicaid gap and in response to that is when he says he created a million jobs.
The Florida Medicaid gap you refer to was created when legislators refused to accept money for Obamacare. What has the gap meant for you and for other Floridians?
I just know, personally, when I was removed from Medicaid and when I sought other health coverage, such as Obamacare, it’s so cost-prohibitive because the federal government wants you to be on Medicaid. So there is a tug-of-war going on with 800,000 people caught in the middle who can’t get coverage. In general, in my adult life, my income has fluctuated. And my health insurance coverage as fluctuated dramatically, which I think is true of a lot of people. So when I’m employed with an employer who has great health care, I have great health care. If I’m unemployed, or self employed, or part-time employed, I have really crummy healthcare. So in my early 20s, I relied on Planned Parenthood, the local clinic. I would go there for my well-woman care, and they provided excellent resources. I have also tried to go to the county health clinic with not very great outcomes.
What happened when you lost your health coverage most recently?
I decided to have a child, and my job was ending. It was a contract job that was ending when I was about six months pregnant, so I wasn’t really in the position to seek new employment. So I got onto Medicaid for the last part of my pregnancy, and about six months after, I was removed from Medicaid and put into another program called called “share of cost,” which is basically catastrophic health insurance. You have to spend more than $1,000 per month before any coverage kicks in, or if you’re in a horrible car accident or something.
I went through the system, and tried to get back on Medicaid, but I was refused because at that point I had gotten part-time employment again. In Florida, it’s somewhere around $7,000 — if you make between $7,000 and $11,000 you’re in this medicaid gap. [For adults without children, its anything under $11,770; for a family of three it’s between $8,840 and $11,770, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation -Ed], and that’s where I fell with my part-time employment. So even though I was taking care of my son and working, I was being denied Medicaid, and when I would get other health care it was just so cost-prohibitive — it was upwards of 25 percent of my monthly income.
Are you still without health coverage now?
My income shifted by literally $500 for the year, and that bumped me into very affordable Obamacare. My Obamacare is like $40 a month. I think it’s comparable to what the governor pays — there was an article that he only pays $360 a year for his health care coverage and, previous to getting on Obamacare, that’s about what I was going to have to pay per month because of Rick Scott’s policies.
It’s really criminal what he’s done with Medicaid. I just have my experience, and luckily I didn’t have any extenuating circumstances so I just rode it out, not having coverage, but the government estimate is that six people die per day in this state just because they are in this Medicaid gap and they have health issues that they can’t get care for.
I think a lot of people were impressed by the fact that you told the governor what you thought about his policies to his face. Is there anything you remembered after the fact that you wished you’d said too?
The list of concerns with Rick Scott for a lot of people in this state is very long. He has an incredibly low approval rating; I might have helped tank it even more. The thing is, although I stand by what I said — I do think he is an asshole — there are better words to describe the impact he is having. Like, as someone who is concerned about climate change — he banned his staff from using the phrase “climate change”; he’s totally ignoring the impact and devastation that is going to happen in Florida from climate change. From that perspective, it would have been better to call him a “polluter.” And as someone who is opposed to the death penalty, we have one of the highest numbers of executions a year in this state, so part of me wishes I had addressed that and called him a “murderer.” And he has got this horrible background of corruption around his health care business prior to being governor, and in my mind that makes him a criminal — I could have yelled “criminal.” There are definitely better descriptors I could have used, and more things I would have liked to say to the governor.
Do you ever think about running for office again yourself?
I really enjoyed my time in public office. Lower-level offices, like a city commissioner, sometimes people treat it like a hobby and they don’t give it that much time. But I treated it as my full-time job, and I was able to accomplish some great things with the help of other people in the city. So I would consider running for office again. I’m not sure when, or what office.
Based on the attack ad Scott’s PAC released, it seems he’s pretty threatened! How does that feel?
In some ways it’s par for the course for anyone who has followed the way Gov. Scott has dealt with the power of being a governor. I think it sets a horrible precedent for anyone with as much power as a governor to attack a private citizen for challenging his policies. It’s pretty unheard of, and I think the intention is to send a message that if you challenge the governor, he’ll put out an attack ad on you to intimidate people into not challenging him.
He’s said that he wouldn’t meet with you to discuss the issues you brought up, and that you’re “not someone you could talk to.” Are you thinking of responding to the attack ad?
If you check out the governor’s Facebook page, by far the majority of the messages in response to the video are condemning him for doing it. So I feel grateful that the public has responded on my behalf, I don’t feel a need to respond. I think it’s better than me responding that there was such an outpouring of support from the greater public.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect a more accurate estimate of the share of Jennings’ monthly income that went to health care costs after she was denied Medicare. It was upwards of 25 percent of her monthly income, not upwards of 40 percent.