Republican CFO hopeful hits own party for insurance crisis

The state representative reaches out to consumers and criticizes his party's leaders as ineffective.

Published July 9, 2006

Randy Johnson might be an ideal candidate for Republicans this campaign season. Or he could wind up his party's worst nightmare.

At a time when voters are getting socked by soaring insurance bills, the candidate for chief financial officer is the rare prominent Republican bashing insurance companies and staking out a populist, consumer crusader message. That's a handy way to show voters that Republicans are fighting for them on insurance, except that Johnson is also hammering his party leaders for failing to come to grips with the problem.

"We've had eight years of Republican leadership, and I think it's something to be proud of," state Rep. Johnson said in a taped Political Connections interview airing today on Bay News 9. "But as Republicans we have also been in charge during this insurance issue, and we have some explaining to do. And guess what? We'd better face the issue head-on in the primary because we're certainly going to have to face it in the general election."

The Republican from Celebration is running for the Republican CFO nomination against state Senate President Tom Lee of Valrico and a little-known candidate named Milton Bauguess of Tallahassee. Democrats running for the post overseeing billions of dollars in state spending and a host of state regulators include former banking executive Alex Sink of Thonotosassa.

While Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist has talked about cracking the whip on insurance companies, Johnson is running almost exclusively on the insurance crisis. And he's bashing Republican primary front-runner Lee as part of the problem -Tallahassee leaders kowtowing to the insurance industry and not standing up for consumers.

"Insurance is about stop Florida's economy. We have to get engaged. Somebody has to take charge and take a leadership role," Johnson said in the interview airing today at 11 a.m.

Some Republican quietly grumble about Johnson trying to politicize and take a demagogue approach to a complex issue, after hurricanes have caused $30-billion in losses recently. At one point in the last session, House Speaker Allan Bense rebuked Johnson as he bashed an insurance proposal on the floor. Bense and Gov. Jeb Bush are backing Lee.

Lee did not return calls for comment. But he has previously responded to Johnson's shots by saying it's much easier to criticize than to lead.

But Johnson insists he will end the "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" approach that has dominated insurance oversight in Tallahassee for years. Though the CFO does not directly control insurance policy, Johnson says he would use the bully pulpit to push insurance companies to write homeowners policies if they want to write other, less risky policies.

"Insurance companies have made money for 20 years plus. I understand they're having a couple of tough years but businesses don't always make money every year," Johnson said.

Lee has cultivated a reputation as someone willing to stand up to lobbyists and special interests, but Johnson repeatedly castigates him for building a $1.3-million campaign account in a loosely regulated political committee. Lee raised that money to protect Republican legislators and already has promised not to use any for his own statewide campaign.

Johnson, though, several years ago created his own political committee raising unlimited "soft money" contributions, and has faced scrutiny and questions about his own campaign finance activities.