In politics, they call it bad optics.
Imagine you’re Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott, for example, locked in a tight race to unseat Bill Nelson from the U.S. Senate.
Your campaign needs you out there, visible and upbeat, for photo ops and commercials extolling your leadership qualities. But where can you go?
A pernicious red tide has affected 135 miles of prime coastline on the Gulf side of the state, while slimy blue-green algae fueled by discharges from Lake Okeechobee is sliming estuaries and waterways on the other side.
Your campaign advisers have warned that you cannot, under any circumstances, be seen or photographed anywhere near this double-whammy of ecological disasters, especially the red tide.
Piles of rotting fish on the shore? Bad optics, Rick.
Ditto for dead manatees and sea turtles.
Swollen corpses of bottle-nosed dolphins? Hideous optics. Truly awful — even worse than scenes of puffy-eyed tourists, wheezing and hacking as they retreat toward half-empty motels.
So, what do you do if you’re a polluter-friendly candidate who’s been arduously trying to reinvent yourself as an impassioned environmentalist?
Stay far away from the water, Florida’s trademark attraction. Stage your events and TV ads elsewhere — warehouses, factories, Wawa stores, whatever. Declare emergencies in the suffering counties, and send some money for research and tourism recovery.
Emphasize in press releases that you, Rick Scott, aren’t personally responsible for the red tide. It’s an itty-bitty organism called Karenia brevis, and it’s a naturally occurring phenomenon. We’re just having a really vile, stinky year.
The red tide has been blooming almost 11 months, and nobody knows how many tourists have been scared away, or how many millions of dollars the economy has lost.
In Manatee County alone, work crews have removed 289 tons of dead fish since early August. Honestly, even one ton of putrid fish isn’t great for business.
“Let’s get to work!” you chirp in your political ads.
But that’s a steep challenge for a beachfront restaurant owner beset with the reek of decomposing mullet and turtles. So maybe he serves three limes with every Corona — one for the beer, and two for plugging each customer’s nostrils.
Scientists don’t all agree on the combination of triggers for red tide, but this season’s version is believed to have been made worse by massive plumes of effluent from the Mississippi River, fertilizer nutrients flushed from Florida coastal developments and hotter temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico.
If you’re candidate Scott, the warm water issue is problematic because you’ve been openly skeptical about climate change. The use of the term was even banned from environmental agency correspondence, emails and reports early in your administration.
Worse, you’ve got a pathetic record when it comes to protecting Florida waters — $700 million slashed from oversight programs in your first term. You also repealed a law requiring regular inspections of septic tanks, indisputably one of the worst causes of near-shore pollution throughout the state.
And many voters might remember how you and the Republican Legislature shrunk the Department of Environmental Regulation, pauperized and politicized the water management districts, fired expert scientists and rewrote regulations to allow Big Sugar and other corporate interests to police their own polluting practices.
Billions of gallons of fertilizer-laced water continues to pour from Lake Okeechobee toward the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, fueling the notorious “toxic blue-green algae” that visually has become the national postcard for your administration.
If you’re Rick Scott, one strategy is to blame the federal government and Nelson in particular for not doing enough to fortify the dike around Lake O. Upgrading a toilet bowl is easier than cleaning the water that flows in and out of it, which would require the state to enforce a few pollution laws.
In August, candidate Scott made a rare, ghost-like appearance on Martin County’s algae-plagued St. Lucie River. It was a short boat ride, and the governor successfully avoided interacting with residents or journalists.
Even from a distance, the optics were bad.
More recently, Scott had to flee a couple of campaign events because protesters were showing up, mocking him as “Red-Tide Rick.” Another optic setback.
Soon afterward, he announced that he wants the state to create a “Center for Red Tide Research” and also revive the disbanded “Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force.”
Bold, timely action! OK, well, not really.
But, if you’re candidate Scott, it’s important to look like you’re doing something.
Meanwhile, don’t get photographed near a red-tide beach or algae-tinted river. And don’t veer off-message — you’re a job creator, remember?
Let’s get to work, people! Shovel up those dead fish.