- The Washington Times
Wednesday, March 7, 2018

If Florida Gov. Rick Scott has a reputation for anything, it’s keeping a cool head in a crisis. How he is navigating the latest may help determine whether he wins a new job in November.

In the aftermath of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Mr. Scott has begun drawing fine lines between himself and more unyielding positions of powerful groups.

The National Rifle Association has blessed the Republican with its coveted A+ rating, but the governor will not be addressing its convention in May.

Mr. Scott has declined to say whether he will challenge Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat seeking a fourth term in November. The governor will announce his decision on the race after the Florida Legislature adjourns Friday.

With the legislative session winding down and emotions raw from the mass shooting in Parkland, Mr. Scott will need to draw on the sorts of reserves that have stood well with him in the past as he navigates a fluid situation.

“He’s perceived as a very competent executive officer in the state,” said Thomas Piccolo, a Republican Party consultant in Tampa. “Now he’s trying to balance a crisis with a constitutionally guaranteed right, and he’s been measured in his approach here, too, for sure.”

Mr. Scott continued his careful stepping at a Cabinet meeting Wednesday morning. A number of proposals, not all of which the governor supports, are contained in a bill under debate in the House.

The legislation, which passed the state Senate earlier this week and the House on Wednesday evening, would raise the legal age for rifle purchases to 21, which is the minimum for handgun purchases. Mr. Scott earlier said he would sign such a bill, he is undecided on a “Guardian measure” in the legislation that deals with on-ground security at schools.

He declined to commit himself Wednesday.

“I’m going to take the time, and I’m going to read the bill, and I’m going to talk to families,” he told reporters in Florida.

Before the Feb. 14 school shooting, Mr. Scott had earned a reputation for disaster handling. When Hurricanes Hermine in 2016 and Irma last year hit Florida, Mr. Scott received positive reviews from Republicans and Democrats for the way he prepared the state for the storms and stayed on top of relief efforts.

Mr. Scott’s actions saved lives and money in the face of disaster.

Hurricanes, though, allow for such planning. Heinous crimes like those that rocked Orlando in 2016 and now the Fort Lauderdale area with the Parkland high school massacre do not, and Democrats say he has fallen short.

They unveiled billboards in Tallahassee and Orlando this month declaring Mr. Scott “did nothing” after an Islamist gunman sprayed bullets in Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people.

During his seven years as governor, Mr. Scott signed bills cutting costs for concealed carry permits and expanded the definitions of “stand your ground” self-defense claims.

But with 17 killed in the Fort Lauderdale area, Mr. Scott is attempting find balance. 

Mr. Scott also proposed nearly $500 million to boost school security, a number likely to be reduced in the legislative session.

Republicans note that such a plan is feasible in part because Mr. Scott’s sound fiscal policies have allowed Florida to amass a substantial rainy day fund, but the details haven’t all been smooth.

Mr. Scott would like representatives of local law enforcement agencies to be the chief providers of school security. He opposes arming teachers, a proposal that the NRA and President Trump have endorsed and a position that has led to uncertainty about his signature on the legislation.

Some hard-core gun rights voters in Florida now are wavering on their support for the governor.

Whether Mr. Scott will also lose the backing of the NRA and Marion Hammer, its lobbying legend in Tallahassee, remains to be seen. Ms. Hammer and the NRA were staunch backers of Mr. Scott in his maiden gubernatorial bid and his re-election, but the organization didn’t respond to requests for comment on the governor’s potential Senate bid.

Some Florida Republicans are not concerned. When asked if she would pull her support, Walton County Republican Committee member Charlotte Flynt was aghast.

“I think that’s going way overboard,” she said.

Mr. Scott’s response is fine with her, she said, and most of the other Republicans in the Florida Panhandle, long a conservative stronghold. Mrs. Flynt said she has been a gun owner for many years, as was her late husband, a retired Air Force colonel who will be interred in Arlington National Cemetery next week.

“With some of the things he’s been saying since the shooting, I find myself applauding,” Mrs. Flynt said. “For instance, he said not everyone should have a gun, and I wholeheartedly agree.”

The Democratic Party and liberal groups have been outspoken about Mr. Scott’s careful positioning, which they consider kowtowing to the NRA. Mr. Nelson attended a CNN event in Florida last month and chided Mr. Scott for not appearing.

History does not provide a clear road map for the Florida election. Mr. Scott won statewide in part by spending millions of dollars of his own money. Mr. Nelson was last re-elected in 2012 on President Obama’s coattails and faced a lackluster opponent. Florida went twice for Mr. Obama, but Donald Trump won the state in 2016.

Democrats say the shooting will be decisive.

“The only thing that’s changed is the kids in Parkland,” said Kevin Cate, a Democratic campaign consultant based in Tallahassee. “Everybody’s talking about it. The intensity of the anger and the lack of patience for gun law reform is everything now.”

Mr. Scott might have earned praise for his response to storms, Mr. Cate said, but he has shown an empathy deficit after the shooting sprees.

Although the power of the NRA is often overstated, there isn’t any question that gun rights have been the dominating perspective in Tallahassee for many years.

“What’s happened here today, what the governor said, is odd,” Mr. Cate said of the maneuverings in the state capital. “What’s true now may not be true in a few hours.”

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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