Candidates clash over flier, crime-fighting claim

At a forum, ex-Pinellas Sheriff Everett Rice lashes Joe Negron, a GOP rival for attorney general.

Published June 24, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - When you're an underdog candidate in a little-watched race, sometimes it takes a little drama to get attention.

At the tail end of a forum for candidates for Florida attorney general, Republican state Rep. Everett Rice made sure he grabbed some attention. Holding up a recent statewide mailing by Republican rival Joe Negron, Rice lit into him.

"This is patently deceptive and misleading," Rice declared of the slick flier touting Negron under a "Florida Republican Times" heading. "Look at it. It implies very clearly that the Republican Party in this state endorses him." The former Pinellas sheriff went on to accuse Negron of misleadingly reinventing himself as the best crime fighter in the race.

Negron shot back that the piece in no way implied a state GOP endorsement and that Rice isn't the only one allowed to talk about crime.

"I stand by every single word and every paragraph . . . I'm very glad that my mail piece on criminal justice issues is getting a wide circulation."

With high-profile races for U.S. Senate and governor, statewide candidates for attorney general (state Reps. Rice of Treasure Island and Negron of Stuart and a third Republican, former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, and Democratic state Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell of Tamarac) struggle to get noticed.

Same with the candidates running for chief financial officer, who also faced off Friday at a forum organized by the Florida Press Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. The lone Democrat running for CFO is retired banking executive Alex Sink of Thonotosassa, while state Senate President Tom Lee of Valrico and state Rep. Randy Johnson of Celebration are competing for the Republican nomination.

At the CFO forum, Johnson made clear he hopes to overcome Lee's fundraising advantage and support from Gov. Jeb Bush by seizing on voter anger over insurance rates.

Johnson repeatedly hammered state leaders for not standing up sufficiently for consumers against insurance companies.

Lee said the governor agreed this week to his request to convene a task force of business leaders - not dominated by insurance interests - to aggressively grapple with the insurance crisis facing the state.

"Only the bully pulpit of the governor's office can bring the talent that we're going to need to help address this problem," Lee said.

Johnson scoffed: "We have as Republicans been in charge a long time, and we'd better take this stuff head on. We're going to have to explain what we have done and why . . . For the people I've been visiting all over the state, a blue-ribbon panel is just not going to cut it."

Sink asked Lee why the Legislature this year waited until the final hours of the session to pass an insurance reform bill that many lawmakers had little time to consider.

"Well," Lee said dismissively, "I think that may show more about how little you know about the legislative process than it does about the insurance bill."

He said lawmakers and business representatives discussed the problems facing Citizens Insurance throughout the session. But Johnson said after the forum ended that Sink's question about the bill being finished in the final minutes of the session was on the mark, that few lawmakers had time to read and consider the bill.

"There was a very good reason for that - because it wouldn't have passed the smell test and was written by the insurance companies for the insurance companies," Johnson said.

Still, the most heated exchanges among all the statewide candidates came during the attorney general candidates' debate. Rice kept challenging Negron even after most of crowd left the room. He noted that Negron's flier touted his work on the Jessica Lunsford Act targeting sex offenders, without noting that Rice sponsored that bill and had pushed it for years.

"Joe, you never had any concern about crime until an election year," Rice said.

Negron responded that Rice is "creating a manufactured crisis."

At another point in that forum, Negron took a shot at Campbell, noting that Campbell is an admirer of New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who has aggressively pursued corporate crime. If Campbell becomes attorney general, he said, Florida businesses will need to put their attorneys on speed dial to protect themselves.

"Thank God we've had Eliot Spitzers who've gone into the boardrooms and put some morality and ethics back into how we govern our corporations," Campbell responded.

Republican front-runner McCollum escaped the heated exchanges and didn't seem to mind. "I find it fascinating they're squabbling among each other. I don't have to participate," he said.

Times staff writer Aaron Sharockman contributed to this report.