In the Republican race for governor of Florida. Attorney General Bill McCollum finds himself trailing a candidate who has more baggage than J-Lo on a camel safari.
The polls show McCollum chasing Rick Scott, whose singular claim to fame was building Columbia/HCA into a healthcare conglomerate that perpetrated the largest Medicare fraud in the history of Medicare.
Only in the rancid political swamp of Florida would a guy like Scott have the gall to run for office, bankrolling his run for the governorship with the fortune he accumulated while his empire soaked U.S. taxpayers for hundreds of millions dollars.
His campaign mantra, slightly paraphrased: "Hey, lighten up! I never got indicted!"
Naturally, a centerpiece of Scott's campaign is railing against health-care reform. That's because he got filthy rich off the current system — bloated, inefficient and highly lucrative to those who know how it manipulate it.
Suspecting fraud, and fielding scores of whistle-blower complaints, the feds began raiding Columbia/HCA hospitals in 1997. Under pressure, Scott resigned as CEO, walking away with $5.1 million in cash, a $950,000 annual consultancy contract and $300 million in stock and options.
Somewhere around 2003, Scott moved from Connecticut to Florida, coincidentally the national epicenter of Medicare fraud. A quick study, he says he's now ready to run our state after seven whole years as a resident.
As for Columbia/HCA, the company ended up paying $1.7 billion in criminal and civil fines for such slimy tactics as bribing doctors for patient referrals, inflating the costs being reported to Medicare and basically fictionalizing patient bills.
Scott's official explanation is vintage Nixon: He didn't know that all that rotten stuff was taking place while he was in charge, but he'll accept responsibility.
The man couldn't keep his own company honest, yet he promises to clean up Tallahassee. It's hilarious.
If that weren't enough, Scott remains the only gubernatorial candidate who still wants to expand oil drilling off Florida's coasts, even after the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Normally, Scott would be a dream opponent for any credible candidate of any party. To run for governor against a person with his past is something veteran politicians pray for, a gift from the heavens.
Which brings us to Bill McCollum.
Once the GOP's frontrunner, the attorney general has fallen behind not just because Scott has spent $16 million of his own money on slick advertising.McCollum's biggest problem is McCollum. He is epically dull, and he just can't help it. Watching him speak has pretty much the same effect as 20 milligrams of Ambien.
Voters in Central Florida loyally sent him to Congress for two decades. However, in statewide races he has — until his successful bid for attorney general — struggled to inspire.
In 2000 and again in 2004, McCollum campaigned hard for the U.S. Senate and fell short. In 2008, he served as state chairman of Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign, which was like getting the cigar concession on the Hindenburg.
Rudy flamed out in Florida and soon exited the race. If he returns to campaign for McCollum, voters will know for certain that McCollum is in dire straits.
The Rekers scandal hasn't improved his prospects.
In 2007, shortly after becoming attorney general, McCollum hired a flaky right-wing psychiatrist named George Rekers as an "expert witness" to testify in defense of Florida's ban on gay adoptions.
Rekers, who was paid $120,000 in state funds, dutifully took the oath and declared that homosexual couples were unfit to be parents. The judge trashed his testimony as biased and unscientific, but he still got to keep the money.
Rekers' credibility was further demolished when it recently came to light that he paid a gay male escort to join him on a European vacation and provide nude "sexual" massages. By all accounts, adoption was not on the agenda.
Amazingly, McCollum continues to defend Rekers' qualifications, although he does concede that he wouldn't spend tax money to hire him again. That's nice to know.
Still, considering McCollum's experience and his support from the GOP power players, it's remarkable that the race between him and Scott is so tight.
With the primary on the horizon, Republican voters will get to choose between one candidate who might put them to sleep, and another who might keep them awake.
Wide awake, every night.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.