The inside story of Rick Scott’s decision to sell Florida’s state airplanes

by | Jan 12, 2019

Governor Ron DeSantis, and occasionally, other key officials in state government, need access to a state airplane or two in order to do their jobs effectively. Incoming Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva agrees. But Florida’s new leaders must also put strict controls in place so that taxpayers aren’t footing the bill for the kind of abuse that led to the sale of the fleet in the first place.

In the earliest days of Rick Scott’s quest to become governor, Tony Fabrizio, Scott’s general campaign consultant, pollster and confidante, organized a series of focus groups around the state. While Fabrizio and other observers sat behind mirrored glass, the panelists – a cross section of voters from places including Orlando, Tampa, Miami, and Jacksonville – were asked their general feelings about the current members of the Florida Cabinet. At the time, those officials were Governor Charlie Crist, Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum, Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson and the lone Democrat, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink.

But Fabrizio’s main focus was on just two of those cabinet officials: McCollum and Sink. By early 2010, they were, respectively, the Republican and Democrat frontrunners in the 2010 election cycle seeking to replace Charlie Crist as governor. Fabrizio carefully scripted the focus group moderator to extract as many valuable insights as possible. He was probing for weaknesses, possible lines of attack, and how to message those attacks to inflict maximum damage during what would soon become a bruising election cycle.

After quizzing the panelists about their opinions and knowledge of all four elected officials, Fabrizio watched as the moderator shared a newspaper story with the group from the June 25th, 2009 edition of the Tampa Bay Times:

He smiled knowingly as they voiced their negative opinions. Given that Florida’s economy was in shambles, with double-digit unemployment and a tanking housing market, Fabrizio already knew voters wouldn’t like hearing that state leaders had abused their access to official-use-only airplanes to take personal trips to the Bahamas, or to political fundraisers, or simply to cruise home for the weekend.

But he was there to test another idea: how would voters react to the idea of a political newcomer, Rick Scott, promising to sell those state airplanes so officials had to ride in cars like regular people?

The panelists in every city – all of them likely voters – almost universally soured on McCollum and Sink after learning that state leaders had abused their access to the state airplane by cleverly combining official business with personal side trips. Need a free ride home on a private jet? Schedule a speech at a nearby rotary club on Friday afternoon and fly home in style.

Knowing he’d found a perfect line of attack that would not only work against McCollum in the Republican primary, but also against Sink in the general election, Fabrizio budgeted signficant resources to maximize the impact and damage. But first, he had to lay the ground work. He enlisted the services of Nelson Warfield, a long-time political operative, strategist, communications expert and now, ad maker.

Once the primary campaign was in full swing, Warfield and Fabrizio settled on a 30-second television ad that told the story and put McCollum squarely in the sights of a multi-million dollar ad buy:

It worked. Riding a wave of voter dissatisfaction with career politicians and the direction of the economy, Scott beat McCollum on August 24th, 2010. Within weeks, Fabrizio had already directed Phase 2 of the attack, this time focused on Scott’s general election opponent, Democrat Alex Sink.

But this time, Fabrizio and Scott had help. The Republican Governor’s Association paid for a similar ad, and third party groups also got in on the act. Here’s a version from a group called “Don’t Bank on Sink:”

With voter’s minds primed with fresh images of Sink galavanting around the state on a private aircraft paid for at taxpayers expense, Fabrizio prepared the coup-de-grace: in early September, candidate Scott announced to reporters that one way he’d help reduce the state budget was to sell the state airplanes.

The media reaction was typical, if not skeptical. Was Scott prepared to foot the bill for his own flights during his tenure as governor? Fabrizio had already asked him the question and knew the answer. Not only would Scott sell the state airplane and use his own jet at his own expense, Scott famously also said he wouldn’t accept a salary.

The story rapidly gained traction, running far and wide on outlets across the state and on the evening news. Some newspapers tried to debunk the concept, interviewing experts who opined about the sheer necessity of having a small fleet of aircraft that state officials could use. And even though all those experts were right, it didn’t matter to Scott, who had an advantage and was willing to use it.

Scott, of course, defeated Sink by a close margin. Promising to sell the state airplane(s) undoubtedly played a key role.

In early January, shortly after his inauguration, Scott directed the Department of Management Services to put both state airplanes up for sale, and within weeks, he announced both airplanes had been sold, fulfilling his campaign promise:

Eight years later, after Cabinet Members Pam Bondi, Adam Putnam, Jeff Atwater and Jimmy Patronis have paid the price for the abuses of their predecessors by flying commercial or driving long distances, Florida needs a state airplane or two. Especially since Governor DeSantis’s current ride – allegedly seized from drug dealers by Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement, experienced in-flight “mechanical difficulties” and was forced to make an unscheduled landing with the new governor aboard.

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