Perhaps we’re so jaded today that we just assume all politicians are brazen opportunists. But Gov. Rick Scott’s campaign turned the opportunism up to 11 this week, all for a cheap “tough on crime” photo shoot.
At a re-election campaign appearance in Tampa Monday, Scott burnished his law enforcement record, complete with a cadre of uniformed peace officers from Florida Fish and Wildlife, Hillsborough County, and Tampa proper. It sure looked like the officers were endorsing him.
Except they weren’t. They claimed Scott’s staff secured their presence by lying and leading them to believe their appearance with the governor would be for an official policy meeting, not an electioneering presser. Some of them were even still on the clock, a violation of state law.
The cops expressed shock to the Tampa Tribune that they’d been used for a campaign stop. A video report on the event and the police reaction was even more damning for the governor’s handlers.
Chief executives surrounding themselves with uniformed folks for maximum optics isn’t a new phenomenon. Every POTUS and guv, regardless of party affiliation, loves the implication: The troops literally stand behind this guy. Heroes have his back. They love the man in charge, and you should, too.
George W. Bush did it, as does Barack Obama, along with a host of governors.
That’s acceptable, at least as the rules for uniformed personnel go, during the business of state. But full-tilt politicking is a different beast. Rules forbid service members and other uniformed officers from campaigning while suited up or on duty.
Campaign staffers, looking to steal a little valor for their bosses, just can’t help themselves — like when Mitt Romney’s handlers pushed Virginia Military Institute to stand some cadets up behind him and politicize a 2012 campaign appearance at the school. The school, to its credit, pushed back.
Perhaps the peace officers who lined up behind Scott, finally realizing what they’d marched into, didn’t feel comfortable pushing back. They take orders from elected civilians, after all. And that’s precisely why their anti-politicking rules exist — not just because their presence looks like an endorsement, but because there’s no way to tell whether it’s compelled or not.
Scott is no stranger to unearned military honors, like when he almost slipped into Florida’s fledgling military hall of fame. Cooler heads prevailed upon realizing that against the state’s Medal of Honor recipients and decorated combat heroes, his Navy accomplishments seemed meager: two and a half years scalping cans of Pepsi to his shipmates while puttering around from Bermuda to Puerto Rico during the Vietnam War.
But Scott’s campaign spokeswoman insists the cops from this week’s howdy-doody knew what they were doing beforehand. “It’s been publicly advertised as a campaign event to everyone,” she told the Tampa Trib.
In other words, either officers of at least three different agencies are lying when they say the governor’s people misled them, or the governor’s trusted advisers lied to the cops and are lying to journalists now. Having served in uniform — and having lived in Scott’s Florida for too long — I know which group I’m inclined to believe.
Adam Weinstein is a Tallahassee-based senior writer for Gawker. He has worked for the Wall Street Journal, Village Voice, and Mother Jones. Column courtesy of Context Florida.