Florida’s Governor Facing Tricky |Territory as He Navigates Zika Crisis

TAMPA (CN) — Residents in Florida right now wake up every day to one question: What’s the latest on the Zika virus?
     It’s everywhere they turn, amplified by growing confirmations of locally-acquired cases in Miami.
     Four new cases were reported on Monday, raising the number of patients who have contracted the condition to 21, with fears that others unknowingly infected will exponentially pass it on to even more people.
     Meanwhile, the mosquitoes carrying Zika are a challenge to track, corral and kill.
     Zika couldn’t have come at a worse time either. Florida’s had a rough summer.
     There was the shocking Orlando shooting. Then an alligator snatched a two-year-old boy at a Disney resort — also in Orlando.
     A menacing toxic algae bloom wreaked havoc on southeastern coastal communities on the 4th of July holiday.
     A gang-related shootout at a teen event in Ft. Myers — a city with rates of homicide and overall violent crime nearly three times the national average — left two of them, aged 14 and 18, dead, with another 18 wounded.
     A misguided call to 911 in North Miami led to the shooting of a black behavioral therapist by a policeman as the innocent man helped guide an Autistic patient back to a care facility — he was fired upon as he lay on his back with his hands in the air, following police orders.
     And now the Zika crisis.
     Steering the third most populated state in the country through such trying times would admittedly be difficult for any politician. But the Zika virus has alarmed state legislators and forced Republican Gov. Rick Scott into a full-court public relations offensive, as he crisscrosses the Sunshine State trying to raise awareness.
     But no one should be surprised. The disease spread steadily from South America and across the Caribbean. Now that it’s here, the blame game is in full swing.
     Though Scott earmarked $26.2 million in late June for preparation and prevention programs, just under $1.9 million has been released to various counties in the state so far, according to a document provided to Courthouse News late Tuesday by the Florida Dept. of Health.
     Scott has gone on a national media blitz, blaming the U.S. Congress and President Barack Obama for not doing enough to provide Florida with the money needed in advance of Zika’s impending arrival. As he contends, they essentially let it happen. He has a point, to a degree. Congress failed to pass a measure in late June that would have provided states $1.1 billion to fight Zika right before they went into their legally-mandated August recess, leaving states like Florida in the lurch.
     And it was Democrats in Congress who voted it down, citing provisions put in the legislation by Republicans that weren’t to their liking. This gave Scott, who has a history of partisanship, the ammunition he needed to publicly criticize Washington.
     Jackie Schutz, communications director for Scott, said the governor has been sounding the alarm since February, softening his position since his most recent television appearances.
     “He’s been trying to make sure we are prepared, but now it’s here,” Schutz said by phone on Tuesday. “He’s been very clear from the beginning. He just wants Congress and the president to work together for a resolution. He’s going to allocate more money.”
     But some Florida political observers and scientists are not entirely convinced of Scott’s posturing, one that has been a recurrent theme during his sometimes controversial tenure as governor.
     “It is a game of chicken — Gov. Scott is famous for doing this,” Dr. Paul Linser, a professor with the University of Florida’s Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience who also specializes in mosquito disease vectors, said by telephone from St. Augustine, Fla. on Tuesday.
     Linser also serves as a member on the Florida Coordinating Council on Mosquito Control, whose mission, among other priorities, is to protect the public health and annually advise the governor, and state legislators in Tallahassee, on budget proposal figures needed to fight mosquito-borne diseases.
     Scott’s claims that the feds are entirely to blame fall on deaf ears like Linser’s, who said the ones actually fighting mosquito-borne diseases year in and year out — employees of mosquito control boards doing the dirty work — are not buying Scott’s current public relations campaign.
     In 2011, Scott, who rode a wave to victory built on Tea Party platform issues, like cutting big government spending, convinced state legislators to reduce mosquito control programs by 40 percent, from $2.16 million to $1.29 million.
     It didn’t go over well, especially when he also decided to kill a $500,000 grant to what was known as Florida’s “Mosquito Lab” that same year. The lab, formally known as the Public Health Entomology Research Education Lab in Panama City, had been founded in 1964. As a result of that decision, and other budget cuts, the lab closed and many of the state’s expert scientists lost their jobs.
     Now the governor has those very same boots-on-the-ground mosquito fighters Linser referred to flanking him at his media appearances across the state.
     “I don’t think they feel this kind of glad handing from city to city to city is anything but political,” Linser said. “It’s campaigning. I don’t think the people who are doing the work on the ground think that he’s doing anything more than promoting his own political agenda. … I think it smells like this latest spell around the state is motivated out of an agenda for something beyond the governorship.”
     Linser said the governor should instead be arriving at each location on his whistle-stop tour with checks in hand, which the scientist thinks would show a genuine commitment to the cause.
     When asked why the governor wasn’t simply doing that, Schutz, the governor’s spokeswoman, deflected the question, saying that as each county requested funds, “the requests will be met.”
     With two years left to go in his second term, which he won by just more than a single percentage point against former Democratic Gov. Charlie Crist in 2014, some experts think he’s eyeing the U.S. Senate in 2018. But Scott’s weathered plenty of low-approval ratings as governor, which is why he needs a win against Zika.
     It’s a risky gambit because if one pregnant Florida woman infected with Zika gives birth to a child born with Microcephaly, the condition in which babies are born with a much smaller head because the brain is underdeveloped and can result in death, it could backfire.
     But it’s too soon in the Zika invasion to judge Scott’s response, according to Dr. Carol Weissert, a professor of political science at Florida State University in Tallahassee, who specializes in state politics.
     “I think the jury’s still out on his response,” Weissert said by phone on Tuesday. “Disasters are really one of the places where governors can shine. I think this is an opportunity for him to do that. And I would call this a disaster It’s a very visible issue and it can really make or break a governor.”
     But would Florida voters be willing to vote Scott into the Senate?
     Many residents, Republican voters included, contend the governor has at times embarrassed the state. He reportedly banned employees of certain state agencies from the using the phrases “climate change” and “global warming” in public documents (he later denied it) and refused to implement gun-control measures that some think could have prevented the largest mass shooting in U.S. history in Orlando this summer, where 49 people were killed and dozens more were injured by a lone gunman pledging allegiance to ISIS. Immediately after the shootings he doubled down on his position on gun control on CNN near the club where killings happened, rubbing many Floridians the wrong way.
     And then there’s the nasty environmental disaster in the form of the toxic algae bloom, originating from Lake Okeechobee and caused mostly by pollutants from agricultural farms, that eventually washed up along the state’s eastern Treasure Coast during the 4th of July holiday. Florida’s powerful Big Sugar lobby has heavily donated funds to one of Scott’s political PACs known as Let’s Get to Work — $200,000 all told, the last $100,000 donation in June. Scott blamed the feds on that one, too.
     Tim Nickens, editor of the editorial desk for The Tampa Bay Times, told Courthouse News that most Florida voters have their minds made up about Scott by this point.
     “They either still can’t believe he got elected and re-elected, or they think he’s doing a reasonable job,” Nickens said by email on Tuesday. “His supporters would say he’s doing everything he can on Zika and being very visible and pro-active. His critics can counter that this is another case of hypocrisy — raising an alarm about a problem he helped create with his own funding cuts and anti-environmental policies — and predictably blaming the federal government for his administration’s shortcomings.”
     Further, Nickens noted, “he always wanted to be in the U.S. Senate. He is on a perpetual campaign as he flies around the state in his own jet to promote job creation, and his PAC continues to raise plenty of money. So the expectation is he is preparing to run for Senate in 2018 against incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson. I don’t think Zika will be the straw that broke the camel’s back unless there is some massive spread of the disease statewide. In South Florida and Central Florida, the algae bloom will give him more problems. Politically, he also is placing a big bet by fully embracing Donald Trump. That could backfire if Trump loses Florida, and the polls show it is a toss-up.”
     Time will tell.
     Photo caption:
     Florida Gov. Rick Scott addresses the media during a round-table discussion about the Zika virus in St. Petersburg, Fla., Monday Aug. 1, 2016.(AP Photo/Tamara Lush)

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