COLUMN: Does bashing insurers still work with voters? Ad makers hope so
Sep 29, 2008
Orlando Sentinel--September 28, 2008
Aaron Deslatte | Capitol View
Florida politicos are dusting off their insurance-bashing TV commercials this campaign season, demonstrating yet again that villains and cash cows can be one and the same.
Florida Democrats have bought TV time to hang the “industry lackey” label on Republican Belinda Ortiz, who is challenging Orlando state Sen. Gary Siplin for his seat.
Her crime: being bankrolled by “tens of thousands of dollars” from insurance interests (though records show she’s gotten almost no insurance money).
A few short weeks ago, Florida’s trial lawyers were trying to take out Siplin in the primary by painting him as a sellout to insurance companies because he backed their bills.
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Meantime, Democrats have labeled incoming Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, the “biggest insurance hypocrite in Florida” for claiming to be tough on the industry after taking money and voting for their bills.
Atwater, a banker who has raised $2.2 million for his re-election, was forced to respond with an ad confessing that “insurance companies once supported me. They don’t anymore.”
But insurers of all stripes — from property and casualty, to health, annuity and auto — still permeate state politics.
This year, insurers and agents have contributed more than $1 million of the $12.7 million collected by the committee that the Florida Democratic Party is using to pay for the Ortiz and Atwater ads.
The industry has given at least another $1 million to state candidates in both parties, campaign records show. And it gave at least $2.1 million of the $28.8 million the Florida Republican Party has raised this year.
Companies such as St. Paul, USAA, Humana, Allstate, Federated Insurance and hundreds more also have funneled $2.1 million into other political committees in Florida during the past 20 months, state campaign records show.
“The insurance industry gave the [Democrats] a huge whack of cash. They’re ramping their hypocrisy score through the roof,” said Rick Wilson, Atwater’s political consultant.
Sighed Gary Landry, a lobbyist with the Florida Insurance Council, which represents the industry in Tallahassee, “The industry is an easy whipping boy.”
Indeed it is.
In 2006, candidates from Gov. Charlie Crist on down castigated insurers for big homeowners rate hikes that followed billions of losses in the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons. They stirred up so much consumer outrage they had to convene a special session in early 2007 to “fix” the problem.
Landry and other industry insiders say Florida political consultants are still tempted to capitalize on anti-insurance angst, even though polling suggests voters this year are more concerned with gas prices and the economy.
State regulators say homeowner premiums have dropped about 16 percent on average compared to two years ago, thanks to the huge financial risk Crist and the Legislature heaped on taxpayers by guaranteeing more backup coverage to the companies.
Last spring, insurers almost coaxed the Legislature to scale back some of that risk and will try again next year.
Michael Colodny, a Fort Lauderdale lobbyist for the Florida Property and Casualty Association, said the industry is staying focused on improving the business climate in Florida and not dwelling on campaign tactics — even though those tactics are financed in part by the industry’s dollars.
“The people involved in these legislative races are very smart people,” he said. “The political rhetoric will pass, and we’ll all hopefully move forward.”
Pigskin and party-building
Florida legislative leaders haven’t let bad football stand in the way of a good fundraiser. Despite Florida State’s miserable performance last week against Wake Forest, both parties used Saturday’s FSU-Colorado game in Jacksonville Municipal Stadium to raise coin.
Incoming House Democratic Leader Franklin Sands of Westin led a “road trip” fundraiser that provided round-trip bus transportation from Tallahassee, a pregame tailgate party and one ticket for a cool $2,500.
House Speaker-designate Ray Sansom, R-Destin, and Winter Park Rep. Dean Cannon organized a two-day fundraising trip to Saturday’s game and today’s Jacksonville Jaguars- Houston Texans NFL contest.
And Democrats will be at today’s Green Bay-Tampa Bay Bucs game at Raymond James Stadium.
Cannon, Sansom and company also had cash calls at the private Governor’s Club in Tallahassee last week for Brevard House District 31 candidate John Tobia and Osceola County Republican Mike Horner, who’s running to replace St. Cloud Rep. Frank Attkisson.