TAMPA -- Worried about his standing among Florida's Hispanic voters in the wake of turmoil over a major Hispanic fundraiser, Gov. Rick Scott is working to resolve image problems in a key segment of the electorate.
Florida Democrats are working just as hard to highlight the problems, accusing Scott of a history of anti-Hispanic discrimination.
The issue arose over the resignation of Scott's campaign finance co-chairman, Miguel B. Fernandez, a Cuban refugee and self-made billionaire from Miami, who cited the campaign's insensitivity to Hispanics in emails published by a newspaper.
Democratic critics are also citing lawsuits against a health care company Scott founded in 2001 and a federal judge's recent ruling that the Scott administration's 2012 initiative to purge the state's voter list of noncitizens was illegal.
Political experts, meanwhile, say the fuss hasn't yet harmed Scott in the minds of average voters, but it could if he isn't able to defuse it.
"Right now this is strictly a subject for the political insider class," said Fernand Amandi, a Miami pollster and political consultant whose firm works mostly for Democrats. "But if these impressions begin to calcify and spread out to the broader electorate, it could have an effect."
After Fernandez resigned, the Scott campaign reacted initially by having the administration's top Hispanic, newly appointed Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, publicly answer the criticism.
In a conference call with reporters, Lopez-Cantera said Fernandez resigned to spend more time with his family and denied the most inflammatory accusation in the Fernandez emails -- that an associate overheard campaign staff talking in mocking Mexican accents.
As Fernandez's emails continued to surface and a drumbeat of news coverage continued, however, some high-level Scott backers reacted by portraying Fernandez as a disgruntled donor angry because he didn't get his way.
That led another Cuban-American Scott supporter, Gonzalo Sanabria, a close friend of Fernandez's, to protest by resigning from the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority and from an office in the state Republican Party.
Again, Scott's camp hit back, saying Sanabria resigned only after he was told the governor planned to replace him because he voted for a controversial toll increase.
But Sanabria, a 12-year veteran on the authority, told the Tribune he had previously been assured of his reappointment and had sat on the board for a year after the March 2013 toll vote, during which Scott could have replaced him at any time.
"I got very angry that my friend had been mistreated," Sanabria said. "I protested to a number of people. The governor's office didn't like that. ... The spin machine wants to turn things around."
Fernandez didn't respond to interview requests and apparently has done only one since his resignation. In it, he said he resigned because he had met his fundraising goal but he didn't disclaim the published emails.
Last week, the Scott campaign responded with a statement of support from prominent Republican Hispanics, including the most crucial electoral segment, Miami Cubans: U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, and former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Miami; three Miami and Hialeah state senators; 10 state House members, with eight from Miami; and 10 other prominent Hispanic Republicans, most from South Florida.
"Hispanics can appreciate the hard work Rick Scott has put into turning our economy around and leading the nation in job growth and economic recovery," the statement read.
The Scott administration has taken other action that could be aimed at improving his image among Hispanics.
Shortly after the Fernandez resignation, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, a Scott appointee, notified local elections supervisors he was canceling a planned purge of state voter rolls.
The purge ostensibly was aimed at removing noncitizens. But no one has presented evidence that large numbers of ineligible individuals registered or voted, and such purges in the past have resulted in removing legitimate voters, usually black or Hispanic. That angered the supervisors and drew accusations of voter suppression from Democrats.
A federal judge recently ruled that a similar purge attempted just before the 2012 election violated federal law prohibiting purges too near the election date.
Scott has also announced that he favors legislation to allow children of immigrants living in the state illegally to pay in-state tuition at Florida universities under certain conditions. Such a bill is working its way through the Legislature.
Late last week, a Democratic opposition research group, American Bridge, upped the ante by bringing up past stories about a Jacksonville physician, David Yarian, who was fired from an urgent health care clinic company Scott started in Jacksonville in 2001 (above).
Yarian, hired as medical director for the startup, contended he was fired after four months because he objected to directives from Scott that all employees for the company should be "mainstream," ruling out those who spoke with a Spanish accent or who were overweight.
He said Scott approved every hire and, "The first thing he wanted to know was what they looked like. It was kind of a running joke in the office."
Yarian sued for breach of his employment contract and said he received an $88,000 settlement instead of the $30,000 severance he was offered.
Eventually, seven employees filed lawsuits contending the company fired them because of their race or appearance, or because they objected that they couldn't hire applicants for the same reasons, according to news reports.
Scott sold his interest in the company shortly after taking office as governor.
A spokesman for the new owner, CareSpot, said a new management team took over in 2011 and the company has no comment on the litigation.
The Scott campaign responded by saying Yarian was a disgruntled employee fired for mishandling pharmaceutical samples.
In a statement responding to the American Bridge attack, Lopez-Cantera blamed Scott's likely Democratic opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist, saying, "There is no limit to how low Charlie Crist will sink in pursuit of his selfish ambition. ... I am insulted that he would resort to using the Hispanic community as a pawn in his sick, desperate game."
Two political scientists in areas where the Hispanic vote is key -- Aubrey Jewett of the University of Central Florida and Cuban politics specialist Dario Moreno of Florida International University -- said the danger to Scott will come if suggestions of anti-Hispanic sentiment coalesce into a political "narrative" that reaches average voters, which hasn't happened yet.
"He had a message that would work for Hispanics -- lowering unemployment, stabilizing the housing market, keeping college tuition down," Moreno said. "And he had some momentum with Lopez-Cantera and the in-state tuition bill.
"It's all stopped."
Scott was vulnerable among Hispanics, he says, because the governor advocated an Arizona-style anti-illegal immigrant bill during his 2010 campaign, and among Miami Cubans because he fumbled legislation immediately after taking office that would have prohibited Florida governments from doing business with firms that do business in Cuba. Scott held a signing ceremony in Miami for the bill, but word leaked the same day that he had sent letters to state officials telling them the law probably was unconstitutional and unenforceable.
Miami Cubans, among whom Fernandez and Sanabria are well-known, are crucial to Scott's chances, Amandi said.
In 2010, Scott edged Democrat Alex Sink 50 percent to 48 percent among Florida Hispanics, the state's fastest-growing minority, even though they lean Democratic. That happened because he won 65 percent among traditionally Republican Cuban-Americans, Amandi said.
President Barack Obama, meantime, won the Hispanic vote and the state in 2008 and 2012. "You can make a good argument that the Hispanic vote made Scott governor," Amandi said. "The way the Democrats can pick the Republican lock on Florida is through the Hispanic vote."
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