On late Thursday, billionaire Mike Fernandez abruptly resigned his post as the finance co-chair of Governor Rick Scott’s (R-FL) reelection campaign. The prominent Cuban-American health care mogul’s departure has fueled rumors of racism among Scott’s campaign staff.
Tensions between Scott’s campaign staff and Fernandez had been building for weeks. And the last straw, according to people within the campaign who spoke with the Miami Herald this weekend, was an incident in which several of Scott’s campaign staffers allegedly began joking around in a cartoonish, over-the-top Mexican accent while on the way to a Mexican restaurant.
Fernandez, who is Cuban, reportedly shot off an angry email to campaign leadership after word of the incident leaked out. In statements made to the press following his departure, he didn’t address the controversy at all, instead pointing to disagreements with the direction of the campaign and shouldering some of the blame himself.
But the charges of racism by members of his staff comes at a delicate time for Scott, who has been on something of an Hispanic outreach kick in recent weeks. He came out in favor of allowing in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants earlier this month, and selected Carlos Lopez-Cantera as his lieutenant governor in January, the first time a Latino has held that position in Florida.
Complaints of racial insensitivity by people in his employ could further undermine Scott’s efforts to attract more Hispanic voters in November. Republicans on the national and state level have been very public about their minority outreach in states like Florida, where non-white voters make up a huge percentage of the eligible voter population, but they continue to alienate even their own minority employees.
Fernandez’s departure from the campaign is the latest blow to Florida Republicans’ outreach efforts. Last May, the RNC’s State Director of Hispanic Outreach, specifically hired to attract more Hispanic voters in Florida, resigned and registered as a Democrat after noting his former party’s “culture of intolerance.” Earlier this year, Ana Rivas Logan, a former Republican state representative, changed her party affiliation because she felt the GOP was becoming “a party that attacks women and minorities.”
Scott’s campaign manager Melissa Sellers tried to downplay the severity of the racist remarks that supposedly motivated Fernandez’s departure, but stopped short of denying they took place. “Mike was not in the van,” she told the Miami Herald via email. “I spoke to every staffer in the van…If something was said in an accent, no one remembers what it was. We are a diverse organization and we do not tolerate inappropriate comments.”
In his four years as governor, Rick Scott has faced tremendous backlash from the state’s sizable Latino population after supporting legislation like HB 7089, which contained many similar provisions to those found in Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 bill. He is also the chief architect and staunchest defender of many of the state’s voter suppression efforts, which Republicans have admitted was targeted at the state’s minority population, a constituency that has historically favored Democrats by a wide margin.