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Nancy Smith

Democrats Really Shouldn't Go Counting Their Chickens ...

June 12, 2011 - 6:00pm

Florida Democrats, salivating over the governors sorry 29 percent approval rate, had a high old time in Hollywood during the weekend, dancing like Ya-Yas around Rick Scotts bones.

Win a second term? They dont think Scott has a prayer.

I'm told the Dems Jefferson-Jackson fund-raising dinner was energized. Everybody was talking about candidates who might challenge Scott. The list included the veteran cast you would expect -- Alex Sink, Jeremy Ring, Rod Smith, Dan Gelber -- plus, of course, the notable inside-outsider, the Ghost of Christmas Past, Charlie Crist.

"If Charlie's our candidate, Scott's out," one attendee told me Sunday. "He's gone. Dead in the water."

Hold on a minute.

I dont know how to break it to these folks, they were having such a good time at their dinner, but here it is: Its a tad early to be giving the governors political journey its last rites.

Scott hasnt been in office six months. He has three more budgets to prepare, three more Legislatures to deal with, three more years to help shovel out the red ink and re-glue a state whose economy had come apart -- not by his hand, but in a staggering national recession.

In fact, the Dems can't even be sure Scott's abysmal approval ratings will help them in 2012. If the Florida enconomy is still bad, if the jobless rate remains above the national average and if people keep losing their homes, Florida voters could grudgingly give the governor a pass and blame President Barack Obama. I'm not saying that's going to happen, I'm saying it's a possibility and the Democrats know it.

Florida's problems were complex and deepening long before Scott won the election, a fact most voters recognized, even the ones who didn't vote for him, even some of the ones who now hold protest signs and call him "the worst governor Florida has ever seen." The budget shortfall was nearly $4 billion. Medicaid was eating the state alive. Banks weren't lending, businesses weren't growing, jobs were not being created, they were ending.

When Rick Scott made his election promise to get Florida back to work -- bring in 700,000 jobs in seven years -- he didn't mean government jobs. He meant private-sector jobs. To do that, he had to change the climate for doing business in the state.

Another often-overlooked problem when he took office, he had a limp-wristed, virtually useless economic development arm in Enterprise Florida. This is an office that should be one of the most important agencies in state government during a recession -- it's all about job creation.

But, even the Randle Report, an online publication reporting business and political news in all of the Southern states, has noted that Enterprise Florida is one of the weakest such offices in the whole of the Southern states, that it has never been funded properly since it replaced the Florida Department of Commerce in 1996, and, as editor Mike Randle quoted a Florida economic development veteran saying, "'Enterprise Florida is no longer an economic development agency. Its a think tank.'"

Enterprise Florida's primary purpose was to be a catalyst in the creation of jobs in the state. "That means jobs, period," says Randle. "Not a certain type of job. Just jobs, particularly in a recession. And with (one of the highest) unemployment rates, Florida can't afford to be picky in what business sectors it recruits."

Randle and others who study the business community in Florida say Enterprise Florida is pickier than any other state in the South, that if Enterprise doesn't initiate a project, then it seldom "endorses" it. Projects get kicked back to local economic development agencies, and generally, the locals don't have the money or the clout to bring them to fruition.

Here's what Randle says about Florida: "Enterprise Florida has marketed itself -- with the few dollars it has -- as a 'premiere' destination state for 'innovation.' A generic term in today's economic development world, Florida's 'innovation' initiatives center mostly on biotechnology, simulation, clean tech (otherwise called 'green' industries), and other emerging industries like 'advanced' manufacturing such as high-end aerospace.

"That's great," he says, "but what about jobs for Florida's lower and middle classes? What about new jobs for those in Florida who live in poverty, particularly those who live in the state's rural regions?"

Scott has had to learn all this and correct Enterprise Florida's deficiencies in a very short period of time. He governs a state in whch the income gap between rich and poor is the widest in the South.

Gov. Scott could surprise a lot of people, a lot of voters, even his naysayers. He could actually succeed. Here and there in his new administration, he's found a real winner. And one of them is Gray Swoope -- a man they call "the comeback kid" in Mississippi. Scott hired Swoope to run Enterprise Florida and revive the Department of Commerce after Swoope landed for Mississippi four of the biggest projects in the South -- a total of nearly 4,000 jobs -- during the first four months of 2010.

Swoope is unlikely to limit the state to "innovation" initiatives. He'll be tickled pink with call centers and general manufacturing. He'll work well with Scott.

Creating jobs and building a sound economy -- OK, it isn't the answer to everything this environmentally fragile state, with its wetlands and forests and springs and its 2,276 miles of tidal shorelines -- needs to rescue it for future generations. But if we don't preserve the economy first, we have no chance of preserving the rest. Look where we were headed with go-nowhere Everglades restoration.

If Rick Scott keeps his campaign promise to bring jobs to Florida, it may just be that by 2014, the economy will be on the mend, and it will be the incumbent governor dancing around a Democrat -- even a Republican-turned-No-Party-turned-Democrat. Don't count out Rick Scott is all I'm saying.

This is an opinion column: Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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