Politics

How the Rapper Pitbull Has Divided Florida's Top Politicians

The recent feud between the governor and the state's House speaker began over a tourism ad. But it goes much deeper than that.
by | May 2017
Pitbull performing at a concert in Los Angeles. (AP/John Salangsang/Invision)

There are plenty of states where governors and legislators don’t get along. There can’t be too many, however, where relations were made worse by a commercial featuring a rap star.

That happened in Florida. Visit Florida, the state’s tourism promotion bureau, paid the rapper Pitbull $1 million to appear in a “sexy beaches” video and advertise #LoveFL. After news of the agreement broke, Gov. Rick Scott promptly fired Visit Florida’s CEO.

That move wasn’t enough to quell criticism from legislators who would like to eliminate the bureau, along with another agency, Enterprise Florida, which runs the state’s overall economic development program. Richard Corcoran, the House speaker, says Enterprise Florida engages in “pay to play” and its funding could better be spent on universities and other government business.

Scott has made job creation the top priority of his governorship, and he takes exception to the idea that his economic development arm is a waste of money. In recent months, he has made it his business to show up in the districts of legislators who have sought to eliminate his prize programs, including Corcoran’s, and call them out by name.

“Corcoran represents a pretty widespread view among a number of legislators that Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida have been out of control to some degree,” says Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida. “The level of vitriol has increased over time and neither camp is backing down. I think [the word] ‘feud’ is appropriate at this point.”

There is some speculation in Tallahassee that Corcoran is motivated not just by good-government concerns, but also by his apparent desire to reach the governor’s mansion next year. Scott, who faces term limits, is expected to make a run for the U.S. Senate.

Fittingly for Republican politicians these days, both men have engaged in what might be described as Trumpian tactics. Corcoran presents himself as a populist crusader willing to take on big business and call out the governor’s programs as “corporate welfare.” Scott has labeled complaints about Enterprise Florida as “fake news.” (Separately, the governor was delighted when it was reported that Corcoran’s law firm had done roughly $235,000 worth of business for Enterprise Florida.)

Relations between the governor and the legislature had already been strained over the past couple of years. There has been serious intraparty disagreement over Medicaid expansion and Scott’s line-item vetoes of hundreds of millions’ worth of state projects every year. Now, with so much overt political wrangling going on, final deals on the budget and other major legislation will be even harder to achieve. “We all understand this is the prerequisite to the political cycle in the next two years,” says Pete Dunbar, a former GOP legislator and longtime lobbyist. “More [media] coverage might facilitate your next move.”

It would be premature, Dunbar stresses, to think that Scott and the speaker won’t come to terms by the end of the session. He notes that Corcoran engaged in public disputes with the state Senate over budgeting and transparency rules, and that those issues were resolved just before the 2017 session started in March. Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida may be different matters. The governor spent much of his State of the State address touting their successes. It was a surprising amount of attention considering that, between them, they amount to perhaps $200 million out of the state’s $84 billion budget.

But the dispute over their fates is likely to overshadow most other issues in Tallahassee until there’s some sort of agreement about how to handle it. With both sides motivated by their own policies and politics, that may be a tough thing to pull off. “Last year was the worst relationship we’ve seen in 20 years between a Republican governor and legislature,” Jewett says. “We thought the relationship couldn’t get any worse, but apparently it can.”

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