Florida gov could get political boost for leadership in Irma

Associated Press

Standing tall in a NAVY cap, Florida Gov. Rick Scott will be an enduring image from Hurricane Irma. Seemingly everywhere but the eye of the storm, he was there on social media urging millions to evacuate, calmly taking charge at emergency briefings, even delivering early word of devastation in the Keys after a much publicized flyover.

Politically, that image of calm before the storm couldn't come at a better time for Scott.

Nearing the end of his second term, the conservative Republican has some of his highest approval ratings as he contemplates challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in next year's election. Even Democrats acknowledge Scott did a good job communicating about Irma. And at least for a time, that could boost Scott's popularity after he repeatedly said a run against Florida's senior U.S. senator is something he'd consider.

"The initial response has been positive. He's been available to every media outlet short of Radio Free Europe. I think that's very smart and it appears that he presents a competent image," said Mitch Ceasar, a former state Democratic Party chairman. "I look for Scott to have a short term bump; whether it lasts will depend on how well the recovery goes."

Nelson also toured hard-hit communities and had Irma media availability. But the prominent Capitol Hill Democrat was overshadowed during the storm as all eyes fell on the state's chief executive.

If Scott runs, as President Donald Trump encouraged when the two toured hurricane damage Thursday, it would give Nelson his greatest challenge since being elected in 2000. But it wouldn't be easy for Scott. Nelson is the state's most popular Democrat. A champion of the space program, he also fought to protect Florida beaches from offshore drilling and helped secure billions in federal dollars as Florida recovered from four devastating hurricanes in 2004.

When he first ran for governor, Scott was cast as a mega-millionaire former hospital chain CEO trying to buy that office; he barely won in a year other Republicans had huge victories. Then Scott squeaked by for re-election with less than 50 percent of the vote. Though he often comes across as robotic and scripted, his popularity has grown as Florida's economy improves. And now he can point to his leadership during Irma should he challenge Nelson.

A similar scenario of a governor getting a boost by disaster was played out in 2004. Then-Republican Gov. Jeb Bush's approval rating soared that year, jumping from 47 percent before the hurricane season began to 62 percent at the peak of storm season, according to Quinnipiac University polling.

The woman who was Bush's communications director that hurricane season and when three more hurricanes hit Florida the following year sees similarities in the way the Scott has communicated with Floridians.

"He has been the voice of calm and I think people look for that in a crisis. He provided Floridians with comfort and assurances that help was on the way," said Alia Faraj, now a public relations manager in Tallahassee for a major group.

Nonetheless, Scott's office was criticized as the crisis unfolded for restricting media access to emergency management briefings — something never done before. And the flow of information on critical issues after Irma has been slowed as the governor's office clamped tight control over messages coming out of state agencies. Reporters have publicly complained, and the Capitol Press Corps is planning a meeting next week on whether to take action to try to improve the information flow before another storm hits.

"Everybody has their own style, but I share the philosophy that any information you can get out to people that could be helpful to them, the sooner the better," said former governor and current Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist.

Scott also was criticized by some — notably conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh — for causing too much panic before the storm, leading to gas and water shortages and causing some to evacuate hundreds of miles only to find themselves threatened when Irma shifted directions.

Still, Scott has received praise from many for his constant presence in the storm. His social media communications during Irma included video of state troopers escorting fuel trucks down highways when supplies ran scarce and YouTube videos of Scott touring battered areas by helicopter.

Hospital administrator Catherine Pezzoti of Miami said she didn't have strong feelings about Scott before Irma. Now the 28-year-old independent voter thinks differently.

"He was on top of everything. He did extremely well," said Pezzoti. "I am impressed."

Former Florida Democratic Party Chairman Scott Maddox, now a Tallahassee city commissioner, also praised Scott.

"During times of crisis, all partisanship is forgotten," said Maddox, a participant in daily conference calls with Scott and emergency officials. "I was impressed with Gov. Scott's handling of this storm."

Whether it plays in the next election is another question, he said.

"Any time you do your job well it helps you when you're seeking the next job, but Bill Nelson is a Florida icon," said Maddox.

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Associated Press writer Adriana Gomez in Miami contributed to this report.

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