"I've seen the mountaintop!" shouted a woman blowing a whistle and marching in combat-style boots down Okeechobee Boulevard in West Palm Beach.
"We shall overcome Rick Scott's tyranny!" added a man who followed closely behind, limping a little.
At least 50 members of the disgruntled masses gathered outside the Palm Beach County Convention Center on this brutally warm March morning, when Gov. Rick Scott was about to give a speech. Scott had just introduced some of the budget proposals that would earn him the wrath of citizens across the state. Teachers, police officers, advocates for the disabled, retirees — people from all walks of life would soon be unified in their hatred of Florida's most powerful politician.
By May, a Quinnipiac University poll put Scott's approval rating at a dismal 29 percent. This week, the Broward police union is hosting a "Party to Leave the Party" protest against Scott in which cops who are Republicans plan to switch their voter registration and abandon the GOP en masse.
In response to this widespread discontent, Scott has urged his supporters to send prewritten letters to the editors of local newspapers."Rick Scott deserves our unwavering and enthusiastic support," the letters say. He also uses recorded phone messages to tout his policy decisions, irritating voters with robocalls about pill mills and government spending cuts.
Born in Illinois, Scott , 58, was raised by a truck-driver dad and a mom who worked odd jobs. For about three years starting when he was a toddler, his family lived in public housing — a humble beginning Scott emphasized in his campaign. By the time Scott was 10, his family had moved to a three-bedroom suburban house in Kansas City, Missouri, where he attended high school and college.
He earned a law degree from Southern Methodist University in Dallas and worked for a big firm in town before starting a health-care company called Columbia. He built his fortune at Columbia, eventually merging with Hospital Corporation of America and growing the enterprise to one of the world's largest health-care companies, with more than 340 hospitals and 550 health-care offices in 38 states. But the flush times ended abruptly.
In 1997, as FBI agents raided its offices and hospitals in several states, Columbia/HCA's board of directors forced Scott to resign. The feds alleged that the company had paid kickbacks to doctors in exchange for patient referrals and had overcharged Medicare. The U.S. Justice Department called the resulting criminal case the largest health-care fraud in American history. Columbia/HCA pleaded guilty to 14 felonies and paid $1.7 billion in fines. Scott was never charged.
He did, however, testify in a separate deposition in an unrelated civil case against Columbia/HCA in 2000. When asked basic questions, including whether he was ever employed by Columbia/HCA, Scott refused to answer, citing his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. In media interviews, Scott has said, "You have to take responsibility for what happens under your watch." But he also said he didn't know the company was doing anything wrong.
In 2003, Scott moved to Naples with his wife. Last year, the multimillionaire ran for governor as a political novice, in a surprise campaign funded primarily by $60 million of his own money. Elected in the Tea Party wave that swept the country, he preached about fiscal austerity and promptly took a knife to cherished social safety nets. In a brief, 60-day legislative session, he implemented a wide-ranging conservative agenda.
He slashed funding for public schools, disabled people, and the unemployed; gave health-care companies control of Medicaid; and privatized nearly all of the prisons in the southern part of the state. Meanwhile, he enacted some of the most restrictive voting laws Florida has seen since the 2000 election debacle.
In June, as the public outcry against his policies continued, one of Scott's top staffers resigned and another was transferred to the state Department of Veterans Affairs. The governor, watching his ship sink, hired a Tallahassee insider as his new chief of staff. He also backed off one of his most controversial executive orders, which required state employees to undergo drug tests.
Despite these changes, the influence of Scott's first, combustible legislative session has already been enormous. Here, New Times takes stock of his dirtiest accomplishments.
Outsourced Prisons to His Political Donors
Last year, the private prison industry gave nearly $1 million to political campaigns in Florida, according to the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in Politics. The majority of the cash went to Republicans, and the largest chunk, $822,000, came from the GEO Group, a Boca Raton-based prison company formerly known as Wackenhut Corrections. (GEO also contributed $25,000 to Scott's inauguration party.) The prison lobby's influence on the Republican-dominated Legislature was immediately evident.
In early February, Scott proposed a plan to transfer 1,500 inmates from state-run lockups to private ones. The next month, lawmakers in the state Senate slipped language into their massive budget bill that privatized nearly all of the state prisons in 18 counties, including Broward and Palm Beach. The budget passed in May, opening the door for the GEO Group and other companies to start bidding for contracts.