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Donors ante up $120,000 for Byrd

Lobbyists and businesses send checks to the House speaker, who says he will run for U.S. Senate next year.

STEVE BOUSQUET
Published July 15, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Florida House Speaker Johnnie Byrd said Monday that he will enter the Republican race for the U.S. Senate after raking in nearly $120,000 in contributions from lobbyists or businesses with a stake in medical malpractice and other issues.

Byrd said he will file papers this week to seek the seat held by Democrat Bob Graham. The Plant City lawyer has one more year as House speaker, a position that gives him an advantage at raising money that he is already exploiting.

Byrd collected $118,000 in June, in chunks as large as $25,000, through a political committee he controls. The Committee for Responsible Government is the same group that underwrote Byrd's campaign for speaker in 2002, but has been dormant for nearly a year.

Recent donors include a workers' compensation insurance company, AT&T, the Florida Police Benevolent Association, a private prison firm and lobbyists for HMOs and hospitals who, like Byrd, favor strict caps on jury awards in malpractice cases.

"I think it's disgraceful," said Ben Wilcox of Common Cause, who said no previous speaker has used a separate committee for so much fundraising. "That's a nice little club he's got going there," he said.

The Florida Democratic Party called Byrd's fundraising a "shakedown."

Campaign laws prohibit using the money in a federal race, but fundraising is an early test of political strength as Byrd competes against U.S. Rep. Mark Foley of West Palm Beach and former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum of Longwood.

Byrd said the money will give him "a presence in the Republican leadership."

A persistent critic of taxes and big government, Byrd will position himself as a champion of conservative values. He called the 2003 legislative session "an incredible success" and defended the solicitation of big checks from groups with a vested interest in legislation.

"If you believe in lower taxes, more freedom and family empowerment, then you should contribute to the committee," Byrd said.

On July 8, Byrd said, he went to Washington to meet with political consultants and election-law attorneys. He was accompanied by Michael Corcoran, a lobbyist and Byrd's closest political adviser, and Rick Michaels, a major Republican fundraiser and CEO of Communications Equity Associates, a Tampa media company.

The fund's largest contribution was $25,000, and came in two installments from a workers' compensation insurance company owned by Associated Industries of Florida.

In an interview, AIF president Jon Shebel said Byrd called and asked for "help," without saying whether he was running for a particular office. Shebel said he strongly supports Byrd as a probusiness conservative.

"He did, in this particular instance, call us," Shebel said. "He said, "I'm gearing up my fundraising.' I said, "The check will be in the mail today.' "

Two checks from AIF's insurance unit, for $12,500, each are dated June 25 on the committee's report. All told, the committee raised $118,000 in the quarter ending June 30.

Lobbyist Ron Book donated $15,000. The Florida Phosphate Council political committee gave $5,000, as did Disney Worldwide Services, the Outback Steakhouse PAC, Title Insurance Through Lawyers, Broad & Cassel law firm and Southern Strategy Group, a major Tallahassee lobbying firm.

AT&T contributed $12,500.

"The speaker called on my good client, AT&T, for assistance," said Will McKinley, a lobbyist for the telecommunications giant.

Byrd supported a bill backed by AT&T and other telecommunications companies that is designed to spur competition but that will raise monthly rates for customers.

Another $5,000 donor was Larry Overton & Associates, a leading lobbyist for the HMO industry.

As speaker, Byrd has weathered intense criticism. His hometown PTA was unhappy with the education budget, the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court accused him of trying to dismantle the court system, and Senate President Jim King grappled with him over funding for an Alzheimer's center in Tampa that Byrd wanted named after his father.

Byrd blocked a Senate proposal to add slot machines at racetracks, and he supported higher salaries for public school teachers. He said those positions will endear him to GOP voters.

"There's a yearning for someone like me - someone who understands the principles of the Republican Party and is willing to be a standup guy," Byrd said.

Byrd could soon find himself joined by two other Republicans seeking to appeal to the party's conservative base: state Sen. Daniel Webster of Winter Garden and U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon of Melbourne.

Byrd asked Republican Gov. Jeb Bush on Monday to expand the current special session to pass a bill requiring minors to tell parents before having an abortion. The state's highest court struck down an abortion-notification law last week.

"This decision," Byrd wrote, "epitomizes judicial activism at its worst."

Without mentioning Byrd's name, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said Monday that "some people" have a political motive for adding abortion to the malpractice-session agenda.

"Some have specific and immediate political futures that make them want to appeal to a political base now," Lee said.

- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan and researcher Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report.

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