Red-Tide Protesters Drive Florida Governor Out of Campaign Stop
By Zac Anderson
With the noxious odor of red tide hanging in the air and a fresh wave of dead fish washing up on nearby Gulf beaches, a large crowd of people incensed about the devastating algae bloom that has plagued the region for months directed their anger at Gov. Rick Scott during a campaign event in Venice Monday.
Protesters jammed the sidewalk and spilled into the street around Mojo's Real Cuban, forcing Scott to enter the restaurant through the back door and leave the same way after just 10 minutes as members of the crowd shouted "coward."
Scott didn't take any media questions during the brief, tumultuous event and did not give a speech to the group of a few dozen supporters gathered inside the restaurant. He mingled briefly with supporters before departing.
.@FLGovScott avoided protesters and came in the back. Crowd inside restaurant chanting "Rick Scott" to drown out protesters outside. Music inside restaurant also super loud.pic.twitter.com/hIKOiedEFp
-- Zac Anderson (@zacjanderson)September 17, 2018
The Republican governor is on the defensive about his environmental record as he tries to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. Protesters gathered Monday took aim at Scott for cutting funding for environmental agencies early in his first term, arguing Scott's cost-cutting and deregulation have kept the state from implementing measures that could have helped minimize naturally occurring red tide blooms.
"The more I learn about red tide the more I can point to Rick Scott making it worse," said Venice resident Rich Peabody, 71. "It's not his fault, but he's making it worse."
Peabody stood by the back door to Mojo's and shouted "coward" at Scott as he left the restaurant.
.@FLGovScott exits back door after just 10 minutes in restaurant crowd booing and shouting "coward"pic.twitter.com/ixiyxE1juV
-- Zac Anderson (@zacjanderson)September 17, 2018
"He's a coward; he wouldn't face these people," said the semi-retired Peabody, who moved to the area nine years ago. "Look at our beaches."
Scott supporters who came out to see the candidate said it's unfair to blame the governor for the algae bloom when red tide has been documented going back centuries.
"We have an extreme amount of red tide this year, but it's something we've seen since the American Indians," said Sarasota resident Patricia Pool, 58, as she waited for the governor to arrive at the restaurant.
But Scott's critics say his policies have exacerbated the problem. Red tide blooms start offshore but can feed on nutrients found in nearshore waters. Leaky septic tanks, lawn fertilizer found in stormwater runoff and other factors can add to nutrient levels in nearshore waters.
Scott signed off on legislation that repealed a mandatory septic tank inspection program. The inspections were intended to identify failing septic tanks that are leaching pollutants.
The governor also cut $700 million from the state's water management districts, which help implement a range of water quality programs. And Scott reduced staffing at the state Department of Environmental Protection and pushed to speed up and streamline environmental permitting, leading some to accuse the state of cutting corners in protecting the environment.
In recent years Scott has moderated his approach to environmental issues and supported increased funding for some environmental programs, but the policies from his early years as governor are the source of frequent criticism from environmental advocates as he seeks Nelson's Senate seat.
Scott has responded, in large part, by criticizing Nelson's environmental record, arguing that the senator should have done more to try to solve the algae problem during his years in Congress.
"Gov. Scott is working hard to find solutions while Bill Nelson is nowhere to be found," said Scott spokesman Chris Hartline. "Nelson promised 30 years ago in a campaign ad that he was going to fight to protect Florida's environment. We're still waiting to see anything besides empty promises."
Scott supporter Christian Ziegler echoed that line of attack as protesters lingered outside Mojo's following the governor's departure.
"You look at Bill Nelson, he's been in Congress 30 years and what has he done?" said Ziegler, a Sarasota GOP activist who is running for the Sarasota County Commission and was at Mojo's to greet Scott.
The unusually strong red tide bloom that has lingered along a vast stretch of Southwest Florida coastline for nearly a year and a separate blue-green algae bloom that originated in Lake Okeechobee and is fouling estuaries on both coasts have mushroomed into major campaign issues in Florida's midterm election.
Sarasota resident John Citara, 52, came out to protest Scott's visit wearing a white hazmat suit and a gas mask.
Citara said he used to take his sons to the beach on a regular basis to go swimming, but now they go to document the environmental devastation.
"Once you wipe out the economy and the tourism, Florida's dead," Citara said. "If this doesn't show us we need to do things differently and hold people accountable, what will?"
Nokomis resident Kim Hileman, 60, moved to the area from Pennsylvania in April "for quality of life."
"Thinking I would escape the snow and enjoy the warm weather and beaches," Hileman said.
But there have been very few nice beach days since Hileman moved south. So on Monday she led the crowd outside Mojo's in a chant of: "Hey hey ho ho red tide Rick has got to go." The "red tide Rick" moniker was featured on a range of other signs.
Jane Hunter helped organize the protest as a leader with the liberal-leaning Englewood Indivisible group.
"We need to make a statement back to our community and the Scott campaign that you can't just totally befoul the Southwest coast of Florida and then run for Senate and vote against the environment," Hunter said. "Nope. Not gonna happen. There needs to be some accountability."
Scott declared a state of emergency last month covering seven counties -- including Sarasota and Manatee -- impacted by the red tide bloom.
The governor also has directed $9 million in grant funding to help communities cope with the bloom.
"While red tide is a naturally occurring algae that has been documented along Florida's Gulf Coast since the 1840's, Gov. Scott is fighting to use all available resources to help impacted communities, including declaring a state of emergency and providing millions of dollars in grant funding to Southwest Florida counties for cleanup and recovery efforts," Hartline said.
(c)2018 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.