For Rick Scott, the timing just seemed right.
The state was struggling through an economic downturn. The job market was a mess. And plenty of people were upset about the Affordable Care Act.
“I was very concerned about the direction of the state. The state had never lost jobs like that. I wanted my grandkids, my kids, to live in Florida, and they weren’t going to be able to live here without a job,” said Scott, a Naples Republican who never held public office before his 2010 gubernatorial bid.
“I thought, if you ran the state like you ran a business, you can make sure people could get a job.”
In 2010, Scott, a former health care executive, defeated Democrat Alex Sink, the state’s chief financial officer and a former bank executive, in a tight race for governor.
Scott is seeking re-election, again running on a platform that his business mentality is best for the state.
“It’s very similar to being a CEO,” he said in a recent interview with the Scripps/Tribune Capital Bureau. “You have to be very focused. Most successful business people are focused on the core mission. Whatever their business is, they’re trying to be the best at it. The same thing applies to being governor.”
Scott might be the most prominent Floridian making the leap from business to politics, but it isn’t unusual. The state Legislature has, among others, Senate President Don Gaetz, who owned a health care company, and Sen. Garrett Richter, co-founder of a local bank.
“It’s a pretty typical phenomenon,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. “When times are bad, then you see CEOs who are used to dealing in the world of finance, and bottom lines enter politics.”
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That’s why Curt Clawson is taking the leap. Clawson, a retired CEO from Bonita Springs, is one of four Republicans running in the congressional District 19 special election in southwestern Florida. This is his first time running for office, and until 2012 he was the chief executive at Hayes Lemmerz International, a steel and aluminum wheel manufacturer.
“As I looked at the situation of the country and the situation of the economy, I thought that it was very analogous to what I found at Hayes Lemmerz when I arrived in 2001,” Clawson said.
“We had a bad balance sheet. If you look at that, you can compare that to what is going on in the U.S. today — we have more debt than we can handle, just like Hayes; operations in our government are not competitive. Those lessons we learned (during my) tenure at Hayes translate to the situation in the federal government.”
But the transition from chief executive to lawmaker isn’t easy, and experts said being a top-performing executive doesn’t necessarily make a good legislator.
Steve Schale, a Democratic political consultant, said there’s no easy answer to whether executives make good politicians. Although they know how to work with others and make tough decisions, Schale said a key part of being an effective lawmaker is whether someone is cordial.
“I’ve seen a lot of folks who did very well, and lots of folks who struggled,” Schale said.
Going from head honcho to having to work with others is often the trickiest part of the transition.
“The business model isn’t the perfect overlay for public policy,” said Gaetz, R-Niceville. “If you own a business, it’s like divine right of kings. In the job I have now, I have to be much more tolerant of other perspectives of doing business than when I was a business owner and my partner and I owned two-thirds of the stock.”
Richter, R-Naples, who has served in the Legislature since 2006, first as a representative and now as a senator, said there was a big learning curve when he took office. Although he was used to the handshaking and public speaking that comes with the job, he was a stranger to the process and needed to learn the issues.
“The structure is good, but if you don’t understand the structure it can be your enemy,” he said. “If you do understand it, it can be your ally.”
Richter, who has been unopposed, said he never has debated an opponent or been involved in an ugly campaign. That makes him “better positioned to pursue good policy rather than feeling pressure to play politics,” he said. It also means his decisions likely won’t be held against him.
Chris Akins, a Republican political consultant, said that is often the toughest part for executives-turned-politicians. Many candidates aren’t prepared for their lives to be laid out for everyone to inspect, Akins said.
“If you don’t have the stomach, then don’t do it,” he said. “In the private sector, you can make decisions and they’re private. You make decisions. People get fired. It may have hurt somebody. Those decisions might come back and some of those will come under scrutiny.”
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Clawson knows how that feels firsthand.
In recent weeks, his record at Hayes Lemmerz has been put under a microscope because of plant closings and layoffs. Clawson said he stands by his record and thinks he can do the same in Congress as he did at Hayes Lemmerz. The company was struggling when he was hired in 2001, and Clawson said under his leadership — despite difficult decisions — the company dug itself out of a hole.
“We need to grow the top line, which means grow the economy. We need to improve the cost structure, which means ‘make hard choices,’” he said. “Grow the top line, grow sales, and that’s how you get to success. The same thing holds true to the federal government.”
Will Miller, a professor at Flagler College in St. Augustine, said executives who run for office usually take a pro-business, fiscally conservative approach — like Scott did, and Clawson is now. That’s because there has been a “bigger national push for controlled spending” in recent years.
“I think I can be a good leader in the fiscal conservative crowd,” Clawson said. “I think that in our political system, I sincerely believe we need more outsiders with business experience because we’re still a capitalist economy. We’re under-represented right now.”
But not every CEO comes out on top on Election Day. Chris Miller knows that all too well.
A successful restaurateur and the former CEO of Ruth’s Chris Steak House, he first ran for office in 2010 for the congressional District 24 seat. He lost a tight race, but two years later, the Central Florida Republican was back at it, this time for U.S. Senate.
He got out when Connie Mack entered the race, but announced he was running for Congress again, this time to represent a district spanning from Volusia to Duval counties. He lost that race in the primary.
After three unsuccessful attempts, Miller said he isn’t planning try again, but is hopeful more people like him step up.
“You would like to think that all constituents would have representation in Congress, not only geographically, but also from a career standpoint,” he said. “Businesspeople are generally under-represented in government.”
Scott said he would encourage executives to follow his lead, but said they need to make sure they have the right personality.
“I think people should run for office; they should be involved in the political process,” he said. But “they need to make sure they’re a people person. That’s the job — to listen to your constituents and try to solve the problems you can solve.”