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New radio ad out the gate in 2006 race for governor

Published October 6, 2005

Katherine "Katie" Johnson is a former member of a Tallahassee lobbying firm headed by lawyer Ron Book. A previous version of this story was incorrect on that point.

In case anyone doubted the 2006 governor's race was off to a remarkably early start, Florida radio listeners this week started hearing campaign ads touting the conservative credentials of Republican Tom Gallagher.

"Jeb Bush must leave office because of term limits - and Florida needs another job-creating champion. Twenty years ago, it was Tom Gallagher who fought for real lawsuit reform. Today, Tom Gallagher has a record that strikes fear in the personal injury lawyers who profit from lawsuit abuse. Take a look at Tom Gallagher - a fiscal conservative, in the Jeb Bush tradition," says the ad running in the Tampa Bay area and other parts of the state.

But the listener would have no way of knowing who's really making the pro-Gallagher pitch more than 300 days before the Republican primary.

The ads come courtesy of a recently formed independent group, the Conservative Education Network. Its leaders include lobbyists and Republican strategists who say they want to reward candidates talking about issues such as restricting lawsuits.

"Our effort is to promote people who are out there talking about issues that we think are important," said Geoffrey Becker, a former executive director of the state Republican Party. His lobbying clients include financial companies, Walt Disney World and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Becker is chairman of the Conservative Education Network, and Internal Revenue Service records list its treasurer as lobbyist Slater Bayliss of the Tew Cardenas firm, whose name partner, former state GOP chief Al Cardenas, is a Gallagher supporter.

The group's secretary is Katherine "Katie" Johnson, a former member of a lobbying firm headed by lawyer Ron Book.

Becker said that depending on how much money is raised, the group may tout other candidates too. He noted that there is nothing negative about the radio spots. It wasn't meant as a knock on Gallagher's rival, Attorney General Charlie Crist, whom Gallagher faces in the GOP primary on Sept. 5, but he said Crist hasn't started talking much about issues yet.

"Now is the time to start talking about what you want to do as governor," Becker said.

Throughout his political career Gallagher has raised money from trial lawyers, but this year his campaign is jumping on Crist for having tapped some of the state's most prominent personal injury lawyers. The radio ads, running in some markets on the Rush Limbaugh Show, are aimed at bolstering Gallagher's reputation early on among potential Republican primary voters.

Under the IRS code that governs this kind of political advocacy group - section 527 - donors won't be revealed until the end of the year. Though the group avoids directly calling for people to vote for Gallagher or against Crist, it could be a vehicle for supporters to write big checks to help Gallagher or other candidates.

J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, a Crist supporter, lobbyist and GOP strategist, said the radio spots presage a campaign in which Gallagher is expected to rely on outside support by 527 groups.

"So three lobbyists and a Florida Bar functionary woke up one morning and said, "I'm worried about job formation in Florida?' " Stipanovich said. "I think they're interested in electing Tom Gallagher, and I think this is the opening shot in which what will be a long and dirty 527 expenditure campaign being waged by the Gallagher folks."

[Last modified October 6, 2005, 18:17:44]

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