Gov. Cleans Up Tallahassee, Burnishes Legacy

Sep 9, 2016

Gov. Scott's clean up efforts could lay the ground work for his next political move.
Credit Nick Evans

Florida Governor Rick Scott has been putting his shoulder into Hurricane Hermine response efforts.

While local officials have stumbled, Governor Scott has, if not soared, at least made a positive showing.  A politician well-known for his wooden public speaking and dogged reliance on talking points, has easily outshone the city and the county when it comes to disaster response.  

So how’d he do it? 

Well, he hasn’t become some great communicator—his delivery is just as rigid as ever.   But in an echo of the workdays Democrats Bob and Gwen Graham have relied on to build political good will, the governor has been visible.  Present.  Taking an active role in helping residents get back to normal.

That started Tuesday morning in a Department of Transportation parking lot.  About a hundred volunteers from state agencies are digging through boxes with gloves and reflective vests, while Department official Brian Satterfield warns them to be careful at their worksites.

The governor’s group starts at a Baptist church in Southside Tallahassee. 

“We have three groups where we are basically just cleaning up today,” Scott explains, “and so we have a lot of volunteers, we have veterans, we got volunteer national guard members, we’ve got other just community volunteers.”

“I’ve had a lot of friends that told me they’ll show up—we’ll see,” the governor says with a chuckle, “it’s going to be a hot day.  But we’re just going to be cleaning up.”

In a nearby neighborhood Scott and a small team of volunteers start digging into piles of branches stacked along the street.  In minutes the bed of a pickup truck is full, but two much larger trucks are right behind it. 

In terms of actually setting the city to rights, the governor’s effort is superficial.  The teams sent out Tuesday cleaned up three streets in city of nearly 200,000 people.  Fallen trees still line curbs and it will be weeks before all that debris is cleared.  But in terms of elevating his standing with the local community the governor’s effort goes a long way.

“You want to make sure that people understand that you know that they’re suffering and that they want some relief, so I think that’s first,” University of North Florida political scientist Matthew Corrigan says, “and then secondly, you want to be seen as the leader of a competently run response.”

Corrigan is actually describing the disaster response playbook perfected by another GOP Governor from Florida: Jeb Bush. 

Long before he was drummed out of this year’s presidential race, Bush established his legacy by responding vigorously to a series of nine hurricanes.

“Yeah I think his poll numbers went up," Corrigan says, "and also some of it happened during the presidential election of 2004, and I’m sure it helped his brother win the state as well because the Bush name was out there in a positive light.”

For years, politicos have opined Scott may be planning to run for another office, senator or perhaps president, when his stay in the governor’s mansion ends.  And Corrigan says high marks after a natural disaster certainly doesn’t hurt. 

“I think anytime that there’s a natural disaster or an emergency and a governor shows strong leadership it’s a political plus,” Corrigan says, “and it allows, I’m not saying that’s the reason he did it, but it is a political plus, and I think that with that, that opens up more possibilities.”

After cleaning up at three sites Tuesday, Scott followed it up with similar visits on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday—reiterating his support for local residents in a largely blue county.  And his rhetoric has been tame, staying away from explicit attacks on local officials.  But with all these events, it seems Scott’s race for 2018—or even 2020—may have begun.