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Wealthy candidates give Democrats hope

Three successful trial lawyers have millions to spend as they challenge Republicans for congressional seats.

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 7, 2002


Three successful trial lawyers have millions to spend as they challenge Republicans for congressional seats.

WINTER PARK -- The waiting room at the Jewett Orthopaedic Clinic is usually filled with people suffering a variety of aches and pains. But Tuesday night, it was filled with unhappy doctors.

About 30 surgeons, obstetricians, urologists and cardiologists nibbled on hors d'oeuvres as Florida House Speaker Tom Feeney spoke about their common enemy: trial lawyers.

"It's a sad cultural commentary that you go home, sit back in your easy chair and some handsome or beautiful trial lawyer comes through your TV and says, "Isn't there somebody you can sue today?' " Feeney, a Republican candidate for Congress, told the group.

This argument would go over well with any group of doctors, but it had a special relevance: Feeney's opponent is trial lawyer Harry Jacobs, who has earned millions representing patients in malpractice suits.

Feeney said Jacobs "has made most of his money from high-tech ambulance-chasing." He warned the doctors that trial lawyers "want to confiscate your wealth."

When he finished, the doctors applauded, offered their own gripes about trial lawyers and handed Feeney an envelope with more than $14,000 in contributions.

Trial lawyers could give the Democratic Party a big boost this year. Jacobs is one of at least three who are challenging Republicans for congressional seats. Jacksonville attorney Wayne Hogan is trying to unseat Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park. In West Virginia, attorney Jim Humphreys is running against incumbent Republican Shelley Moore Capito.

These races could be critical because Republicans control the House by only 14 votes. Many Democrats have difficulty raising enough money to beat a Republican incumbent, but the wealthy lawyers might win seats the Democrats had considered out of reach.

They have millions to spend.

Hogan earned $54-million by representing Florida against tobacco companies. The Orlando Sentinel has reported Jacobs has a net worth of at least $42-million, largely from suing doctors and nursing homes.

Hogan's St. Augustine campaign office shows how money makes a difference. Instead of the usual hodgepodge of creaky chairs and battered tables left over from the Mondale campaign, Hogan's office smells of fresh plastic, with new computers, four shiny TVs and a stack of cell phone boxes.

Both Hogan and Jacobs have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV ads that air around the clock in Orlando and Jacksonville.

"It's a pretty awesome onslaught of money," said Mica. "My motto is "Make Wayne spend it all.' But that is almost impossible. This is just pocket change for him."

Mica says he'll spend about $1.2-million on the campaign and expects Hogan to spend at least twice that much.

Hogan won't say how much he plans to spend, but said, "I'm determined to see (that voters) have the necessary information to make an informed choice."

Amy Walter, an editor of the Cook Political Report, said trial lawyers make effective candidates. "They are real good on camera because they know how to make a case. Look at John Edwards (a Democratic senator from North Carolina who is running for president) -- he is attractive, articulate, and he almost makes the camera melt."

Mica says the trial lawyers have an ulterior motive. They want to block Republican bills that cap how much people can win in a lawsuit.

"This is a very concerted effort by trial lawyers to tip the balance on one issue -- tort reform," he said.

But Jacobs and Hogan say they were not recruited by any group. They say they're running for Congress for the same reason they practice law -- to help people who are disadvantaged.

Hogan, who has not held political office, could retire with his millions from the tobacco settlement, but he said he feels obligated to keep working. "You don't make a substantial benefit and just walk away from the world."

Jacobs, who served on the Altamonte Springs city commission in the 1970s, said he has been fortunate to earn lots of money in his career and that serving in Congress "is an opportunity to give back in a large way."

Their campaigns use the same populist messages as their lawsuits. They say government needs to do more to help ordinary people. They emphasize the need for a drug program in Medicare. They want government to prevent corporate abuses.

By contrast, Republicans depict trial lawyers as greedy attorneys who file frivolous lawsuits and drive up the cost of insurance. The doctors at the fundraiser said their rates for malpractice insurance have doubled in the past few years.

Feeney said the trial lawyers want to resurrect the Clinton health plan, which called for more federal involvement in medicine.

"Remember Hillary Care? I believe that's the direction they'd like to go," Feeney told the doctors. He said the trial lawyers would like a medical system similar to what's offered in Cuba and "Red China."

But Walter, the Cook Political Report editor, said Republicans have not been very successful in vilifying their Democratic rivals because the trial lawyers "can make the case that they are helping out the little guy."

-- Staff writer Bill Adair can be reached at (202) 463-0575 or adair@sptimes.com

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