This Week in Florida Politics: All About BP and Rick Scott
A mood swing swept Florida this week.
With the clock on the Gulf oil spill passing the 50-day mark, Florida officials jettisoned their measured response and began loudly airing frustration with British Petroleum and clean-up efforts, as tar balls, sheen, boom and skimmers became the vocabulary of a Sunshine State summer.
Shifting feelings also touched Florida voters – with a new poll showing Rick Scott suddenly becoming the frontrunner in the governor’s race. In a similar turn, one-time Democratic unknown Jeff Greene is now just a whisper behind U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek for their party’s U.S. Senate nomination, according to the Quinnipiac University survey.
With tourism slumping because of the oil spill, Scott and Greene also have become a two-man stimulus package for Florida TV stations – with both pouring millions out of their own pockets into advertising. The investment appears to be paying off – especially for Scott whose almost $15 million in TV spots has fueled what Quinnipiac claimed is a 44-31 percent lead over Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum in the Republican primary contest for governor.
Scott also would knock off Democrat Alex Sink and independent contender Bud Chiles in November, according to the widely circulated poll.
Gov. Charlie Crist, the no-party U.S. Senate candidate, remains the frontrunner in that race – narrowly leading Republican Marco Rubio, with the Democrat, either Meek or Greene, well back.
Pollster Peter Brown acknowledged that Florida voters look like they fit the rising national trend of an angry electorate ready to toss out those they see as career politicians. But that frustration seemed to course through the state this week – with BP now becoming the target of tougher words from Crist, McCollum and Sink, the chief financial officer.
FRYAR ROASTED BY CABINET AS DAMAGE MOUNTS
The governor and Cabinet made it clear to BP vice president Bob Fryar this week they want swifter payments from the company to coastal businesses and individuals hurt by the encroaching spill. Blistering Fryar for what they saw as a slow response by BP, officials said more dollars for the state also should be in order – with Crist upping the state’s demand on the company to $200 million. BP so far has pledged $75 million.
Also, meeting for the first time a gubernatorial task force fanned the rising fear that BP could be positioning itself for a strategic bankruptcy, possibly to duck the spill’s expanding threat to its bottom line. Members of the state’s Gulf Oil Spill Economic Recovery Task Force said the state should insist on at least $500 million upfront from the company to ease what the panel concluded would be widespread revenue loss to Florida businesses, counties, schools and state government.
The mounting concerns came even as a University of Central Florida economist this week estimated the state’s loss attributed to the BP disaster will likely range from $2.2 billion to as much as $10 billion.
McCollum, after earlier venting more anger toward the federal government than BP, also seemed to catch the rush to call-in the company’s cash.
The attorney general wrote BP this week demanding it put aside $2.5 billion in an interest-earning escrow account to cover what he called a “staggering blow” to Florida’s economy caused by the oil spill. He also warned “the escrowed amount may need to be increased in the future.”
Crist also flexed muscle – seeming to edge closer to a legal confrontation with the company. The governor this week brought on as special BP counsel Tampa lawyer Steve Yerrid, one of the “Puff Daddies,” the dream team of trial lawyers which reached an $11 billion settlement for Florida with the cigarette industry to cover the public costs of smoking.
Crist mentioned Yerrid’s role when he addressed the Florida Justice Association – the state’s trial lawyer group whose members he is courting for support in his Senate run.
“While it remains our hope to avoid litigation, I believe we must be prepared in the event legal action is needed,” Crist said.
THE LAST VETO
While political sentiments seemed to rollercoaster this week, Crist broke the pattern by doing exactly what most expected he’d do: By week’s end he vetoed the controversial HB 1143, which would have required women seeking abortions to have an ultrasound and be offered a chance to view the image.
House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, had declined to send Crist the legislation for more than a month – a delay designed to allow supporters to flood the governor with correspondence and phone calls urging he sign the measure. But opponents were almost equally aggressive in their calls for a veto – and Crist, who has written-off most conservative voters in his U.S. Senate campaign, had signaled a veto was coming.
It came Friday.
SESSION STILL TALKED OF
Another finding of the Quinnipiac poll showed Floridians support for offshore oil-drilling has flipped in two months – with 51 percent opposing increasing the amount of offshore drilling, compared with 66 percent supporting such efforts in April.
Crist, though, has gotten no support from the Republican-ruled Legislature for a special session to put on the ballot a constitutional ban on drilling in state waters.
But with a pair of Panhandle counties, Santa Rosa and Escambia, pushing this week for legislative action to give property owners a tax break for losses stemming from the oil spill, Senate President Jeff Atwater moved slightly closer to embracing a summer session.
The North Palm Beach Republican signaled such help may be warranted. He also assigned Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, to mobilize a select committee to gauge the level of economic damage the state may face – and lay out steps that should be taken.
ROTHSTEIN HEADED TO LOCKUP
Scott Rothstein, who two years ago paid $52,000 for a Crist fund-raising birthday cake for the governor’s 52nd birthday, earned his own half-a-century standard this week – a 50-year sentence for running a billion-dollar Ponzi scheme.
Rothstein had been a heavy political contributor to both the Florida Democratic and state Republican parties, along with Crist and Sink. When Rothstein’s wrongdoing emerged last fall, the parties and candidates worked feverishly to shed themselves of the ill-gotten cash.
STORIES OF THE WEEK: BP getting the piñata treatment from Florida officials. The rise of Rick Scott, Florida’s $15 million man.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I was a criminal. I defrauded people I loved.” Scott Rothstein, in a letter to his sentencing judge.