The CP Interview with Scott Maxwell

Political columnist dishes on offending people, why he gives back, and how he wound up a question on Jeopardy.

Orlando Sentinel Taking Names columnist Scott Maxwell’s main objective is to make a difference.

The first time I met columnist Scott Maxwell was back in 2011 at a reception for Orlando Magazine’s 50 Most Powerful People in Orlando. While I knew he was just that, I was struck by how genuine he seemed. As it turns out, not only is he powerful and genuine, he is a truly compassionate man who lights up when he talks about his wife and kids, and he is as down-to-earth as they come. I think you’ll agree. If you don’t, you can always send him some hate mail.

How do you decide what you are going to write about each week?

Since I work in the newsroom, I’ll hear the stories’ start come about. My goal is to come up with an angle that hasn’t been thought about before. For instance, you will rarely see me write something about abortion, or a topic where everybody’s already got their got their mind made up. I do write about the death penalty, but I try to look at it from the facts from our state. … Our state keeps getting it wrong more than any other.

I try to see if there’s something I can add that hasn’t already been said 1,000 times before. I also try to write about things where I think I can make a difference.

How much research goes into each column?

A LOT. For instance, [in October] there was an announcement made that the EPA got a $2 billion settlement out of a fertilizer company for polluting Florida’s waters, and I know nothing about phosphate and fertilizer. I had to start from square one.

This company, Mosaic, got fined for mishandling 60 BILLION pounds of hazardous waste. And when you say a number like that, I was thinking, “How on earth can I even …?” So I went and looked up how much the Titanic weighed. It would be 600 Titanics … enough to go the distance from Orlando to Gainesville.

I try to have fun occasionally. I think people like to laugh along with you … the struggles with their kids … things like that. I think people just like to go “yeah” because everybody sits around their dinner table and talks about [the same things].

Do you have a favorite column?

If I had to pick my one column that people still [talk to me] about more than any other, [it] was when I took my [then fifth-grade] son to “sex camp.” I just wrote about everything that everyone felt.

You regularly share your hate mail. Does it ever sting?

It bothers me if there’s some accuracy to it.

So you get some thoughtful hate mail with valid points?

Yes, I have had people raise points, but most of the hate mail I post isn’t thoughtful. I just always thought nothing makes those people madder than if you laugh at them. I mostly laugh at it, but I’d lie if I said it doesn’t stick with me sometimes.

Does anyone ever get you to change your position?

When I’m writing about something, I really try to actively solicit opinions that are counter to mine. That’s a good part of formulating a good argument, but it also helps me avoid that. I send my columns to my colleagues and say “argue with me.”

Does your editor ever come to you after reading your column and tell you he won’t print it?

No. And that is really important to note. I wouldn’t stay at the paper if it was otherwise. I’ve written things that the publisher and editor haven’t liked, and they’ve told me, but I have no problem with that.

How did you end up with a column at the Sentinel?

I started out taking over for a columnist, Leslie Doolittle, when she left; she wrote mostly society stuff. When they came to me, I thought about it and said, “I really appreciate it, but I cannot do that [a society column] for a living.” They asked if I would do it if I could mix it up … so I did a column that was half politics and half that. … It was kind of weird, actually.

I had to stop doing it. I went to my editor and said, “I really appreciate the opportunity you’ve given me, but if you want somebody to write about society events, you’ve gotta get someone else.”

He said, “I don’t care what you write. … Write whatever you want.”

Are you ever forced to write something not so positive about someone you like?

It’s funny you ask. I don’t say nice things about people I don’t like, but I do say mean things about people I do like.

Has it ever cost you a relationship?

You know, I count true friends on one hand. I’m here to do a job; I’m not here to be buddies with them.

Has anyone tried to persuade you to not write about them?

Back when I was doing the society stuff I didn’t care for, there was a very well-known person who got really drunk at a fundraiser, was yanked off stage, and proceeded to rip up his donation check. He must have called five times the next day, and on the sixth time I answered. … He said, “you kill this story and we’ll be in Vegas by 10:00 tonight.”

That’s not who I am.

Do people usually know when you’re going to write about them?

If I’m gonna scorch ya, I will usually let you know in advance. When I reached out to the two senators who sponsored the Stand Your Ground bill, I sent them an email that made it clear that I thought they were going to be responsible for killing people. My general philosophy is you may not like what I write, but you won’t be surprised.

I’m not gonna be rude, but I wouldn’t like me. I don’t expect them to like me, and I don’t really care.

There are a handful of people that I care about their opinion, but you don’t do this to make friends, and if you do, you’re doing it for the wrong damn reason.

With such a strong political voice, have you ever considered running for office?

I don’t think so. First, I don’t know who would vote for me anyway, but I really do think the system is so broken. But the main reason is, I would have to leave the newspaper. I love what I do. Remember the musicians from the Titanic? That will be me. I’m gonna go down with the ship.

Who do you like for president in 2016?

I am honestly not super psyched about anyone who is actively running … on either side. I’m probably not alone in that boat. But there’s a lot of time left.

You are always hosting charity events. How do you decide which ones to support?

I’m a big fan of organizations who put the majority of their money back in. I think two that do a really good job are Shepherd’s Hope and IDignity. They are filling a need that nobody else does.

How did you develop your passion to give back?

Mom was a stay-at-home volunteer. That’s where I got it, all the nonprofit stuff, from my parents. Dad worked at the homeless shelter; my mom was involved with so many charities.

Your kids are 13 and 15. Do you ever embarrass them?

Allllll the time. The dance-off I had with Buddy Dyer … My son didn’t like that, even though I won.

If I asked your wife, Cyndee, what you do that drives her crazy, what would she say?

I’m usually firing on all cylinders by 5:30 a.m. when she’s still trying rub the sleepiness out of her eyes.

When you think about your kids’ future, what are your biggest fears or concerns for their generation?

I worry about them being informed and active. Facebook, Instagram and “The Daily Show” are no replacement for really understanding the issues around them. I also worry a bit about personal interaction skills. They are growing up in a LOL and TTYL generation.

I also worry about a society that is increasingly fractured — financially and politically.

On the flip side, what great things do you see for the world they will raise their kids in?

They have access to more information than any generation before them. They see 20-somethings form companies and become billionaires and are inspired to do the same. And they don’t have near the cultural hang-ups that we do. One time, when I asked my kids if other kids at their school ever got picked on for being another race, they didn’t even understand what I was asking. That’s cool.

What’s your favorite way to spend time with your family?

We’ve really gotten into cruising. It’s one of the only vacations that is a true vacation because you can’t get your phone to work.

If you could go back in time and be or do anything, what would it be?

I think being a member of the Rat Pack would have been fun. I used to sing. I used to do dinner theater when I was in school…and I love Vegas.

Your cover photo on Facebook is a Jeopardy question with your name in it. How did that come to be?

That’s my claim to fame and I didn’t even know it was going to happen.

Did anyone get the answer?

They did! And it was the hardest one. It was the $1,000 question.

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