Politically weary, Sink focuses on business growth

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News,Science and Technology

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Watch Alex Sink talk with people forming startup technology companies and she's smiling, energetic and confident. She exudes ideas for making Florida a place where young adults with a vision can grow them into multi-million dollar companies providing high paying jobs.

Watch Sink talk about politics, and the tone is much different. There's disgust over how Republican Gov. Rick Scott has led the state since he defeated her in 2010. There's frustration over policy she thinks the state should be pursing and isn't. And there are also moments where she just looks weary. The Democrat started and stopped her sentences when talking about whether she'll again seek the governor's office.

"I wish I weren't thinking about it," she said, after letting out a big sigh. "I just have too much of an idea of how things can be so much better for people."

Sink, 64, is torn. She wants to develop ideas through her FloridaNext foundation to make the state a place where startup businesses flourish, and she dreams of having a long, far-reaching effect on the state — much like Jeb Bush did with education after he lost his first bid for governor in 1994. She also knows that her ideas would go much further if she sat in the governor's office, she just doesn't know if she has the will for another campaign.

A big reason is the loss of her husband, Bill McBride, whom she was strategizing with about another gubernatorial run before he died suddenly of a heart attack in December.

"Without a husband, without the person that I relied on the most to shore me up and give me good advice. That's changed. That's changed everything," Sink said. "Right this minute, if you're asking me, it's off the table. I'm not prepared to say, 'No I'm not,' but I'm much further away from a run today than I was three months ago."

There are other factors, too, that make running again not so enticing. She's tired of raising money: challenging an incumbent with millions of dollars is difficult no matter what popularity polls say about voters' current antipathy toward Scott. And unlike 2010 when she had no primary opposition, she won't have as easy a path to the nomination with the possibility of former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who recently switched parties, and others also seeking the Democratic nomination.

"Alex Sink is viable in any scenario even against Charlie, because she could run as 'I'm the real Democrat here, he's not,'" said Screven Watson, a Democratic consultant. "Take Charlie out of the mix, she's your front-runner."

But either way, it would be a more difficult path for Sink. She could no longer walk to the nomination, and some might have doubts she could beat Scott because she's lost to him before, Watson said. That makes it more difficult to raise the money needed, and Watson said she'd have to run the campaign more efficiently and be more aggressive.

Instead she is putting her energy into FloridaNext, a non-profit she started after the 2010 election, which Scott won by 1 percentage point.

"After such a close loss, I said, 'OK, I still have these ideas, I still think they're great ideas. I don't want to give up on these ideas and these concepts,'" Sink said.

The former Florida chief financial officer has a small office is in the same building where she used to run Bank of America's Florida operations. The office floor is now taken over by Tampa Bay Wave — a group that helps accelerate high-tech projects being developed by Tampa Bay area entrepreneurs.

"This is all deja vu for me," she says as she walks through the familiar surroundings that Bank of America left behind.

She stops on the way to her office and talks to several people who enthusiastically detail their ventures.

One is developing technology to help make bus routes more efficient, another is working on a phone application that would help people remember things like restaurant recommendations and a third who's creating technology that would help governments or companies better track workforce and equipment. There's even discussion about a web game called Chicken vs. Cobra and the marketing potential of the simple idea developed over breakfast the day before.

The startups are all getting help through Tampa Bay Wave to get the contacts, connections and resources they need to grow.

It's what Sink is also trying to do. The fact that she's decided to set up a foundation amid the Tampa Bay Wave ventures shows her commitment to her goals, said the non-profit's founder, Linda Olson.

"Her excitement is genuine. The entrepreneurs feel it, see it when she's here," Olson said. "She doesn't go tuck herself away in an office."

A large part of what Sink wants to do is use her business and political connections to help entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s find investors to help develop their ideas into sustainable companies, saying too many now leave for states where they can get more venture capital and support.

"We're sick and tired of spending money to go to New York thinking we're going to steal one of Michael Bloomberg's Fortune 1,000 companies to move their headquarters to Florida. We've tried that for 30 years and it hasn't worked," Sink said. "To me, we ought to be spending what little incentive money we have in growing our own businesses."

She recalls when Tampa celebrated the arrival of 700 jobs when the Wall Street investment firm Salomon Brothers moved a technology center to the city.

"It was great while it lasted, but after five or six years, they moved all their jobs to Indonesia, or India or some other place and left their building up on the parkway just empty," Sink said. "Let's support people who have roots here, or who want their children to come back here to create a life for themselves."

So while she applauds Scott's efforts to contact companies and try to move them to Florida, she sees it as only one piece of the puzzle.

"That's an important role that the governor plays, but I don't think that that's a place where we should put all our eggs in one basket," she said. "I would much rather have 20 small businesses say we're going to each hire 10 people, than to have one company go to one place and say 'We're going to put 200 people here,' because sometimes they leave."

And, yes, she'd be in a better position as governor to steer business policies she believes would work.

"It's the only reason I think about taking another run," she said. "It's just every day walking up, thinking — and it's probably like punishing myself — just realizing all the things we could and should be doing right now, in any number of areas."

And she lists areas of policy ranging from insurance, to higher education, to protecting springs, to climate change. And the more she talks the more forceful she gets, pointing out why Scott is wrong for Florida.

"We've got a governor that knows nothing about Florida and doesn't seem to care very much about learning. That's what's so damned irritating to me. If he was out trying to figure how does this place work and who are the people and what kind of lives that they lead, I would feel a lot better about it," she said. "I asked one of the tea party guys, 'How can you justify your support of this person who just signed the bill approving a 12th university when we can't even afford the 11 that we have?'"

Republican Party of Florida spokesman Brian Burgess said Scott is delivering on his promises and the state's economy is improving.

"Look, the governor's results speak for themselves," Burgess said. "I don't know what Alex Sink can criticize."

Sink sees Scott positioning himself for re-election, including shifting or contradictory positions, like signing a teacher merit pay bill two years ago, and this year saying all teachers should get a $2,500 raise regardless of their performance. And then there's his money. Scott, who founded the HCA hospital chain, spent nearly $80 million of his fortune to win the job and has plenty of money left over.

"I don't care how unpopular he is, writing himself another 30 or 40 or 50 million dollar check can take care of that," she said. "My eyes are wide open. It's not going to be easy to beat him."

Then she thinks about Crist taking on Scott, who is already contrasting the rising unemployment the state experienced under Crist to the lower unemployment numbers during his term. And Republicans always point out Crist's previous conservative positions on such issues as abortion and gay rights and how they conflict with his new beliefs as a Democrat.

"It'll be a disaster," she said, her voice low.

That puts her back to the realization that she can watch the election unfold from the sidelines and continue her focus on FloridaNext, or she can jump in.

"The only reason I that I have not, given everything that's happened to me, particularly in the last month, that I haven't said that I'm absolutely not doing it, is the look in the eyes of so many people. Strangers coming up and just begging me to run," she said.

And she again talks about the advice McBride was giving her about when and how to get in the race.

"But he's not here anymore and my kids are, and they're not enthusiastic about the idea at all. And I'm now the financial support for my family," Sink said. "And that's another thing that's different."

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