Before wealthy businessman Rick Scott took to the airwaves in the spring, Attorney General Bill McCollum appeared to be well on his way to the Florida governor’s mansion.
“So how come things in government never change for the better?” asked the plainspoken Scott. “Maybe it’s because we never change the kind of people we send to government. We need a conservative outsider to hold government accountable.”
In time Scott’s ads became very specific about his view of McCollum’s 30-year political legacy:
Forty-five percent of [Florida] home-owners owe more than their homes are worth. How’d it happen?
Congress made the mess—loosened regulations, pushed banks to make risky loans.
Congressman Bill McCollum? He voted yes.
So the mortgage industry made McCollum a high-paid lobbyist.
This is no Barney Frank liberal that Scott is savaging. McCollum has spent a lifetime in and around America’s conservative movement.
Endorsing McCollum last week, Dick Armey, former House GOP leader, declared his friend was “tea party” long before there were tea parties. The high point of McCollum’s 20-year congressional career was his service at Henry Hyde’s right-hand in the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
One of Washington’s leading conservative figures, explaining his support for McCollum, says their relationship goes back to the ’60s when McCollum was a conservative political activist at the University of Florida. Indeed, when McCollum appeared recently in Washington at a weekly luncheon of conservative leaders, he was given the warm greeting of an old friend returning home.
But back in Florida, McCollum is in trouble. And if his life as a career politician isn’t enough of a problem, McCollum has managed to get himself into a real mess over the Arizona immigration law. Activists say the most effective of the Scott ads features McCollum’s voice declaring, “We don’t need that law in Florida. That’s not going to happen here.” Scott then declares the Arizona law nothing but “common sense.”
The ads have had an effect. Three weeks ago a Quinnipiac University poll gave the businessman a 13-point lead over McCollum in the upcoming August 24 Republican primary. More recent polls show Scott with the lead, though by lesser margins. Both men hold comfortable leads over likely Democratic candidate Alex Sink, the state’s elected chief financial officer.
During his visit to Washington, McCollum assured old friends that he supports the Arizona immigration law, though a top Scott strategist has given reporters an entertaining “McCollum immigration timeline” documenting McCollum’s changing positions on the Arizona law and its relevance to Florida.
Immigration is not the only problem plaguing McCollum. The campaign’s inability to exploit apparent problems with Scott’s business record is striking. Between 1987 and 1997, Scott parlayed the purchase of two Texas hospitals into a network of 340 hospitals with 285,000 employees in 37 states generating more than $20 billion in annual revenue. In 1996 Time named Scott one of the 25 most influential people in America for showing how free market health care could significantly reduce waste and inefficiency.
But in 1997 what was then Columbia/Hospital Corporation of America became the target (along with a host of other hospital corporations) of a federal Medicare fraud probe. Scott urged his board to allocate legal resources to battle the charges. The board chose not to—and forced him out in a settlement that left him a very rich man. In 2003 the corporation settled the investigation by paying the government $1.7 billion, the largest such fine in history.
So how did the forces of McCollum choose to present Scott’s business record to GOP voters? In mid-spring Florida airwaves were hit with a $1 million ad campaign urging viewers to stop the kind of Medicare fraud perpetrated by Rick Scott by calling a toll free number (which turned out to be a U.S. government hotline). The ads were paid for by a Virginia group called the Alliance for America’s Future. Its president is Mary Cheney, daughter of the former vice president. Who financed that organization’s ad buy? It’s a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, not required to disclose its donors, so no one knows. To many in Florida, this unsolved mystery became a bigger story than the issue it sought to raise.
Meanwhile, Scott created a website, truthaboutrickscott.com, with a detailed defense of his record—and went on television with another highly effective ad. He asserted that he was so far removed from the fraud investigation that he was never interviewed, much less charged, by federal authorities, but he acknowledged that mistakes were made. Looking straight into the camera, he said he had learned from these mistakes.
“If you want a career politician, then go with McCollum. But if you want someone who learns, leads, and demands accountability . . .” After all this, Scott is still ahead in the polls.
Scott is an unlikely politician. He grew up in a small town outside Kansas City, Missouri. His father was a long-haul truck driver. His mother worked at a host of jobs to support the five children, and, as she told him growing up, “to help you all make something of yourselves.”
From an early age he worked hard, helping his mother at tasks ranging from cleaning phone booths to short-order cook. It was from her in those tough years that he developed a commitment to entrepreneurship.
Scott spent 29 months as a radar technician in the U.S. Navy, married his high school sweetheart, and went on to the University of Missouri Kansas City (where he bought, revived, and sold two doughnut shops). He earned a law degree from Southern Methodist University, and joined a Dallas firm. It was there that he and a major client bought those first hospitals that served as the foundation for his business empire.
Scott cut his political teeth in the fight against Hillarycare in 1993. “Rationing is the ultimate destination of government-run health care,” he says now, “and the people who need help most suffer the most.” Last year, he mobilized against Obama-care. He organized Conservatives for Patients’ Rights to battle Obama’s health care plans. The band of political and advertising consultants he put together were among the most talented opponents of the Obama public option plan. Today those operatives have been transformed into the foundation of his campaign for governor.
McCollum says he has yet to spend much of the $7 million he has raised for his campaign, and while that may not come close to matching the money Scott can spend (and already has), McCollum will find it hard to do worse than his Alliance for America’s Future allies did with their Medicare fraud ads. On the other hand, Scott at this point may only need to convince Republicans that he can defeat Sink to win the primary.
For establishment conservative politicians who had expected to ride the public disenchantment to victory this fall, the McCollum campaign may be illustrating the old Pogo comic-strip line popular when he was a young conservative activist at the University of Florida: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Kenneth Y. Tomlinson is a former editor in chief of Reader’s Digest.