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Q and A with Rick Scott -- staying on message, deflecting the hard stuff

Rick Scott's campaign bus stopped Thursday somewhere between Ocala and Newberry so that the campaign could drop off two political reporters after a round of pointed questions from the Herald/Times. The campaign says the stop was planned. The reporters didn't expect it.

Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas and Palm Beach Post reporter Dara Kam were invited to interview the candidate on Scott's campaign bus, a luxury touring van that he has used to criss-cross the state in his campaign for governor.

Scott, affable and friendly, has made himself readily available to reporters throughout the week but, in this case, Scott campaign aide Lanny Wiles, the husband of campaign manager Susie Wiles, cut off the interview after 20 minutes. Wiles told reporters the stop was necessary so Scott could do a call-in interview to a radio program. Chad Colby, Scott's aide, says the bus was scheduled to stop before Scott made the 5:45 call. Maybe it was just a bit of miscommunication.

The reporters were asking questions that, if answered, may have required Scott to move off some of his talking points and campaign message. Here's the transcript: 

Klas and Kam begin interview by asking Scott why they waited three days to launch their an ad exploiting the debate flap against Alex Sink. Klas then asks Scott to respond to Sink's criticism of the ad, in which said said she took responsibility after the debate by firing the aide that attempted to deliver a message to her but when it comes to your history of fraud she said that’s something you have yet to do.

Scott: I’ve taken responsibility from day one. All she’s ever done is, what responsibility has she taken for NationsBank?

Klas: Have you taken responsibility for the fraud? (He begins to interrupt) Don’t change it around though, respond to her comment. Have you taken responsibility for the fraud?

Scott: I’ve taken responsibility for mistakes that were made.

Klas: And that includes the Medicaid fraud?

Scott: I take responsibility for not putting in effect with management -- what I have said specifically is that I’ve taken responsibility so that I should have required more auditors. That’s exactly what I should have done.

Klas: So you’re not taking responsibility for the actions that led to the fraud?

Scott: I’ve taken responsibility for what my job was. I should have made sure we hired more auditors.

Klas: The New York Times today – did you happen to see that story? I know you don’t read about yourself. You told me yesterday that your best friend was Steve Braun -- one of your best friends -- he’s quoted in the New York Times today. Has anyone briefed you about what he said?

Scott: No

Klas: Want me to tell you? (Reading from notes summarizing the comments in the article:) He said that if he were advising you, he would advise you to be more forthcoming. He said that you are too scripted, too nervous, too beholden to consultants -- political consultants -- and that that was hurting  your image.

Scott: He’s got a position

Klas: When I was in the crowd at Lake Mary I met Cynthia Sucher (a long time public relations consultant to Columbia/HCA who has worked with Scott for several years and now sits on the national advisory board for Solantic.) She said the same thing, she loves you. She actually switched parties to vote for you. She thinks you’re brilliant, all that stuff.

But (she said) you could be more forthcoming. Are you beholden to your political consultants? Are you doing things because they say this is what you should do and you’re not more forthcoming to belie some of these questions?

Scott: I’m very comfortable with what I’ve answered.

Klas: Ok, which means?

Scott: I tell people I should have hired more auditors.

Klas: When people have other questions, you’re not interested in…

Scott: What other questions do they have?. Ok, they’ve asked me: If I saw someone do something wrong would I fire them? I said, absolutely.

Klas: When I talk to people at your rallies, I always ask “Why are you supporting Rick Scott?” And their reasons are because you’re a fresh face, and you’re going to bring a business perspective, and you’re going to bring jobs. And I ask, “What do they think about all these negative ads that are running against you?” There are so many different answers but the general answers are always: “Well, that bothers me, that troubles me, I have questions about that, I wish I could learn more.”

So is that the gambit you’ve played here? You’re just kind of hoping you give them enough information and they’ll still give you their vote?

Scott: I’ve given so many – there’s a web site, the I think about all the interviews I’ve given, all across the state.

Klas: But, as you said, you’re sticking to your answer, which you don’t elaborate on.

Scott: I elaborate. The question is, what would I do differently? I say I would hire more auditors. I should have done it.

Klas: When I asked you yesterday if you’d hired more auditors, and asked what information should you have gotten and what would you have done if they’d given you information that there was this fraud occurring?

Scott: I would have fired the person and correct any problems.

Klas: When it comes to how far you are willing to explain this to voters…

Scott: (Interrupts) Ask your question? I’ve explained everything. There is nothing new you can write. Go to the web site.

Klas: The web site doesn’t say what you’d known and when. Can you say you did not suspect there was anything questionable going on in terms of …

Scott: If I’d seen anything, I’d have fired them. Think about it. I’d put my life savings and started this company from scratch and then somebody would have done something wrong and I wouldn’t have done anything about it. That’s not consistent.

Klas: Do you think you owe any apologies to taxpayers for what was stolen in terms of Medicaid and Medicare money from taxpayers?

Scott: What I tell everybody is I take responsibility.

Kam: Do you consider paying that fine responsibility?

Scott: I tell people I could have done a better job.

Kam then asks whether Scott believes Florida should become a more conservative state.

Scott: What I’m running on is what I’m going to bring to this state in terms of business principles. Everybody has their own definition of what conservative is. I’m clearly a conservative.

But if you want to talk about specifics, I can talk about a specific issue but some people may ask is that conservative or not. I know what I’m running on. I put out my beliefs, right, so when people say I’m a conservative, your definition of a conservative may be different than mine. So if you have a question about what a conservative is, ask me that. Don’t say is it going to be more conservative because I don’t know what your definition is.

Kam: That’s fair. So in your election and what a clear choice is would be shift in the political landscape form where it is in Florida to what you are telling voters your administration will bring?

Scott: It’s very clear what I’m going to do. I have a seven-step plan. It’s all written out. You can look on their what I want ot do for citizens insurance. You can look at our web site and exactly what I to do on tort reform. You can look exactly what I want to do for education. You can look on there exactly what I want to do as far as how you run government. Those are the things I’m running on. That’s where I am.

The opposite side is what she gets. She believes in more taxes. She believes in bigger government. She believes in Obamacare. She believes in bringing what Barack Obama does to Florida.

Klas: You are so particular. It was clear in the depositions when you said what is the definition of "market' and things like that and you just said “what is the definition of conservative?” You are very particular about that, but when it comes to the words you are willing to use and the conclusions you are willing to draw about your opponent, it doesn’t sound like you are that particular.

For example, you say she (Sink) supports every tax. Can you give me proof in this election and in her business plan she will support every tax?

Scott: She supports a payroll tax.

Klas: That is something that happened in the 1990s when she was on a commission, so you’re saying that because that happened in the past it must apply to this election this year?

Scott: No. Well she has to raise a tax right, because she has $12 billion in additional spending.

Klas: Can you break it down?

Scott: The Senate president’s letter broke it down.

Kam: PolitiFact analyzed that letter and found it to be false, that $12.5 billion calculation.

Scott: So what’s the number?

Kam: I don’t know.

Klas: There is an assumption there is a tax and her answer is, your assumption is wrong, there is no tax.

Scott: Why is that?

Klas: So you are making an assumption that benefits you and it is shown to be inaccurate.

Scott: We are walking into at least a $2 billion budget deficit. She has spending proposals that add up to $12.5 billion. You can argue with the number but is it 9, is it 10?

Klas: The numbers you have added up are convenient for you. You are making assumptions.

Chad Colby (press aide): She wants $300 million more for pre-k; $2 billion more for education.

Klas: I am not going to debate Alex Sink’s plan because her plan says things like as the economy improves and all this mitigating language.

Chad: So you ought to write she has no plan.

Klas: I’m not writing she has a plan.

Kam: I’m still interested in what you’re talking about where Florida is right now. Republicans dominate the Legislature and we have a Republican government. Compared to what we have right now, if you are elected, how will it be a shift in the political landscape? I understand it will be a business, it’s not compared to Alex Sink, but compare it to what we have right now?

Scott: Less regulation, lower property taxes, phase out the business tax. I’m going to streamline the government. You benchmark it. All you do is you say there’s 49 other states and lots of other countries you compare yourself to. Are they doing, whether you’re looking at education, corrections or procurement, you compare and you say can I do that less expensively.

My experience in business is there some significant dollar savings. Some of the things we put in there we compare to other states. There’s a lot of money to be saved.

Klas: So we can take your word on the fact that there’s significant dollar savings but you’re not willing to take Alex Sink’s word on the fact that she claiming there’s significant dollar savings and then she’ll do her pre-k plan or her …..

Scott: We went through it. To help me work on it, I hired the Arduin Laffer firm, the Laffer Arduin firm, and we went through and showed the detail. There are some expense points. 

Klas: There are some unanswered questions in your plan too and I went through it point by point with Donna (Arduin) because it wasn’t on the black and white page. She had to explain to me how you came to this conclusions. It’s fair to say both campaigns are absent a lot of details.

Just to get back to a point. I think you have a little bit of a double standard. Because on one hand, you want things very precise and you want metrics and you want things very defined and benchmarked but when you’re talking about making accusations, it’s ok to say in your ads that the state lost $24 billion dollars in the pension fund. You imply in that ad that the state has lost $24 billion and it’s gone. In fact you said the word “$24 billion gone.” Do you believe that that’s true?

Scott: Absolutely.

Klas: $24 billion is gone in the state pension fund?

Scott: When you could sell at a time you lost millions of dollars.

Klas: Your ads says $24 billion. You’re a numbers person.

Scott: We had backup.

Klas: I know. And do you know what the back up is?

Scott: (pause) I have to go back when we approved the ad but I approved the ad.

Klas: You took the benchmark of June of 2007 to June 2008. Is it June 2008 anymore today?

Scott: But, did that, did the pension fund go down like that? Yeah it went down like that.

Klas: Yeah but you said it’s gone. What does gone mean? The pension fund is now – when your ad started running, the pension fund had recovered $18 billion of the $24 billion. Why is that accurate to say that $24 billion is gone?

Scott: It’s accurate because she didn’t listen to auditors who told her there were too risky investments.

Klas: When she did get the reports she claims that she (pushed) to fire the people that didn’t tell her they were too risky. So when the facts don’t add up to support your ad, that doesn’t bother you?

Scott: My belief is it did.

Klas: Your belief is it did.

Scott: I’m comfortable with the ad.

Klas: You’re comfortable that $24 billion, even though it’s a window (in time.) When you have an investment and you lose money over one period of time do you tell you shareholders that investment is still lost even though you’ve recovered from it?

Scott: First off, absolutely. If I’d sold on that date. That’s when the money is lost.

Klas: But you didn’t. It didn’t sell…

Scott: Slow down. Do you want an answer? Every day when you’re an investor you have the opportunity to buy or sell. So every (day) you own something is actually a decision to buy if you didn’t sell. Right, does that make sense?

Kam: Right.

Scott: So if you were going to sell whenever that time frame then you lost that money because you basically made a new decision not to sell that stock at that price.

Klas: The pension fund, though, is something that is held for a very long period of time because you’re investing to benefit retirees. So you don’t just sell $136 billion in one day.

Scott: The way as an investor to look at things -- that money was lost because you made a new investment decision every day to hold things.

Klas: Step back on this campaign, what was the most surprising thing for you?

(Lanny Wiles, the campaign's director of logistics had quietly radioed to the caravan of cars following the campaign bus, that they were going to pull over on an unscheduled stop so that the the reporters could “transition out’’ of Scotts bus. He the reporters have five more minutes.)

Scott: I didn’t go into it with set expectations so there isn’t any one surprise.

Klas: Campaigns usually say it helps groom a candidate to be a leader in office. My question is, if you win on Tuesday, what has this campaign taught you about being a leader for Florida? What lessons are you going to take from the campaign?

Wilkes: Okay. This is the transfer point for reporters

Scott: I wouldn’t call it a lesson. There’s not a lesson. What I liked about the campaign is what I liked about running the company, is I like all the people and their stories and their desire for improving their life.

(The bus slows down, stops near a convenience store and the interview ends. The reporters are politely escorted along the side of the road to the press bus. The bus travels another 30 minutes until it reaches the destination.)