Florida gubernatorial candidates spar over partisan politics

In a debate that resembled the political advertisements that have dominated this election season, Florida gubernatorial candidates Democrat Alex Sink and Republican Rick Scott traded barbs Monday night, using the opportunity to address issues facing Floridians while harshly attacking each other.

The debate, which was conducted in a conversational style rather than the typical question-and-answer format and held in USF’s Theatre I, produced the anticipated friction between the candidates with the elections one week away. It was moderated by CNN’s John King and the St. Petersburg Times’ political editor Adam Smith, airing live during a nationally televised special edition of CNN’s “John King, USA.”

The candidates’ economic policies, as well as their former business practices, were the main topics of conversation.

Scott said it is important to create an environment that is good for business before the economy can grow and jobs can be created.

“You have to reduce regulation, focus on the size of government and phase out the business tax,” he said. “This race is about jobs. My opponent doesn’t have a plan (to cut taxes). She wants to raise taxes.”

However, Sink said she does plan to cut taxes, as well as reform government so it runs more efficiently and creates jobs, and has always been fiscally conservative as the state’s chief financial officer (CFO).

Scott challenged her role as CFO, calling her a “failed fiscal watchdog,” and said she had four years to propose any legislation she wanted in order to make changes to Florida’s financial state.

“Let me clarify about who has been in charge in Tallahassee,” she said. “It’s been one party – Rick Scott’s party, Tallahassee insiders. I’ve been a Tallahassee outsider.”

The candidates were then asked questions about their former businesses and if they would run Florida as if it were a business.

Scott, former chairman (CEO) of Columbia HCA, was asked about a deposition he gave in January 1997 about letters in a fraud case. In this deposition, he said he “(signed) letters all the time that (he had) not read.”

“What you do as CEO is you surround yourself with the smartest people you can and you trust them,” Scott said. “You know, you do what Ronald Reagan said, you trust and verify as much as you can. So I don’t know the factors in that case, but that’s what I will do, that’s what I did in that company and that’s what I’ll do as governor.”

Scott then claimed that Sink defrauded seniors through tellers at Nations Bank and falsified county records through the public company Sykes.

Sink said those claims were “falsehoods and lies.”

“First of all, let me say that I retired from banking 10 years ago,” she said. “That case, the lawyer that brought that case – it was a class action case against another company – he even has said publicly that Alex Sink had nothing to do with the case, had nothing to do with the situation and didn’t know about the problems.”

Sink said if someone tells her to do something illegal, she’s not going to do it. She also said she “cares about the people who work hard every day.”

“I’m not going to be the kind of governor who puts profit over people like Rick Scott does,” she said.

The debate quickly turned ugly when Scott called Sink an “Obama liberal” who used “Obama math” when calculating the cost of the proposed high speed rail project.

When asked if he would “pull the plug” on the high speed rail, Scott said he would first need to look at what the state is responsible for and what the federal government is going to fund.

“If the federal government is going to fund all of it, let’s look at it,” he said. “Let’s make sure we have all the money and look at what the real return is. You wouldn’t build a building without knowing everything (first).”

Sink responded by saying her opponent “didn’t know a thing about” her or Florida and was running on a campaign based on nine or 10 sound bytes.

The candidates also discussed their stances on bringing Senate Bill 1070 – the Arizona immigration law that requires immigrants to carry proof of citizenship and allows law enforcement officers to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally – to Florida.

Scott said he believes in legal immigration.

“If you’re in our country illegally and get stopped by law enforcement, they should be able to ask if you are legal or not,” he said. “We should have a working visa program so people know that they can come here for a period of time and our employers can get workers. I believe over time that if we set up a process that works, the illegal immigration process problem will go away.”

However, Sink’s response was in stark contrast to her opponent’s view.

“Florida is not Arizona,” she said. “I would increase the fines and penalties on businesses that knowingly hire illegal immigrants. I would also confer with law enforcement about immigration.”

Despite both candidates’ intent to focus on the economy and job creation, when asked what Florida’s minimum wage was, both candidates incorrectly responded that it was $7.55. Minimum wage in Florida is $7.25.

Susan MacManus, professor of public administration and political science, was the master of ceremonies for the watch party held in the Marshall Student Center Ballroom. She said, for many, the debate was a mere continuation of the political ads they see on television.

“Many felt there wasn’t enough expansion on the topics,” she said. “They liked the fact that they covered a lot of issues, but disliked that they didn’t go into detail about those issues.”

According to a straw poll conducted on campus last week, MacManus said the No. 1 issue that students indicated they would use when deciding whom to vote for was the economy and jobs.

“It’s predictable they would want to know more about this,” she said. “They’re looking at more fiscal stress coming up in their lives.”

She said it’s always tough to get college students engaged in midterm elections.

“The bottom line is I think the turnout rate of USF students will be higher because of these debates,” MacManus said. “The other thing that really matters to people is being able to see the candidates in person, which is what we had tonight.”

Sean Lux, assistant professor in the Center for Entrepreneurship, said people are hearing a lot about job creation in this election cycle, but business executives have struggled accomplishing that feat.

“The real question needs to be how can this lead to business creation, business growth,” Lux said. “And, we really haven’t heard that in this campaign.”

He said he would have liked to hear more specifics on what each candidate would do as governor.

“A lot of policy questions could have been asked, but weren’t,” Lux said. “What this could all mean for students is hard to judge as well because they haven’t laid out their plans (as future governor).”