Anger Over Insurance Bedeviled Incumbents

Article Courtesy of The Tampa Tribune

Published  January 20, 2007

David beat Goliath twice in November. 

With heavily tailored district lines, incumbents rarely lose any legislative race. But voters turned out two sitting state representatives who supported legislation now blamed for helping property insurance rates skyrocket. Both enjoyed a huge financial advantage, partly because of the largesse of insurance companies. 

Both seats went from Republican hands to the Democrats. The same factors applied in the five additional open seats Democrats took from Republicans, marking their first gains in Tallahassee in 20 years. 

Is it any wonder lawmakers in the middle of a special session on insurance rates are approaching things with a decidedly consumer bent?

"It amazed me how some of these incredibly safe seats were challenged," said former state Rep. Randy Johnson, a Republican who helped draw the district boundaries in the state House six years ago. He called the election results stunning and an epiphany that sometimes it takes more than money to win.

Companies dealing in all types of insurance, along with agents and others tied to the industry, donated $4.4 million to the Republican Party of Florida in the 2006 campaign. The Florida Democratic Party received $463,321, state records show.

Republican candidates received another $2.4 million, including $378,000 that went to Gov. Charlie Crist. Democratic candidates received $625,116, but $150,000 of that came in personal loans by candidate Len Turesky, an insurance agent.

Locally, the state Senate race between representatives Kim Berfield and Charlie Justice followed the statewide trend. Berfield received $64,400 from insurance interests and voted for Senate Bill 1980 last year, which required state-run Citizens Property Insurance to increase rates this year by 56 percent. Justice opposed it. He received $5,900 from insurers. He won despite being outspent nearly 4-to-1 in the state's most hotly contested Senate race.

In Broward County, incumbent Susan Goldstein voted for the insurance bill that also included a 25 percent rate increase for Citizens customers. She lost to lawyer Martin Kiar, despite a better than 2-to-1 spending advantage. Insurers gave Goldstein $19,000, campaign finance records show. Kiar received $250.

Kiar tried to outwork the incumbent, saying he knocked on 24,000 doors in the district. Education started out as the biggest concern to his constituents, he said. But that changed with each insurance rate increase.

"What people were unhappy about was that she had received so much from the insurance companies and that she had voted for that bill last year," he said Tuesday.

Most of that bill, including the automatic rate increases, is about to be repealed by many of the same people who voted for it less than a year ago. It's a matter of to whom legislators turn for information, Johnson said. Insurance companies provided huge campaign contributions and had lawmakers' ears.

"I still hear Gov. Bush talking about his thought that you just can't lower prices, you just can't fix this problem. The truth is, if the only people you have sitting around the table are insurance shareholders then you can't lower prices," Johnson said.

Insurance lobbyists drop in on Kiar now. He says he's interested, but skeptical, about their arguments.

"They try to get into the numbers. I have a lot of legitimate questions and concerns with their numbers," he said. "We really don't know what their actual numbers are."

Democrats offered many of the same ideas last year, said House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber. 

"We didn't get a hearing last year," Gelber said. "They wouldn't even give us the dignity of defeating it. Now this year, we're really discussing the ideas with them in a way that couldn't be any more different."

It wasn't a purely partisan move. Johnson spoke out against the bill, saying it was too industry friendly and would hurt consumers. In response, House leaders shut him out, he said, refusing to hear his proposals on insurance or any other issue.

Bush took the unusual step of getting involved in a Republican primary, endorsing state Sen. Tom Lee over Johnson in the race for Chief Financial Officer. Lee lost to Democrat Alex Sink.

Johnson's campaign was dubbed "the Blue Tarp Tour" as he railed against skyrocketing rate increases.

Johnson, who lives in Celebration, now runs a communications company, but Crist tapped him to lead his administration's transition effort on insurance. He's in Tallahassee for the session, trying to help the new governor's mandate for rate cuts succeed. 

"This is the last stop of the Blue Tarp Tour," Johnson said.