Johnson riding insurance issue in race for CFO
The lawmaker, staking his campaign on homeowners' anger over rate hikes, is even zinging fellow Republicans.
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published July 20, 2006
TALLAHASSEE - A little-known state lawmaker hopes a wave of public outrage over rising insurance rates will propel him into statewide office this fall as Florida's first elected chief financial officer.
Whether Republican Rep. Randy Johnson succeeds will answer a question that looms over this campaign season: How angry are voters at their insurance companies, and how will it affect the way they vote?
Johnson, a former Navy pilot from suburban Orlando, faces an uphill battle in his one-issue effort. His opponent in the Republican primary, Senate President Tom Lee of Valrico, has raised more than twice as much money and received the coveted endorsement of Gov. Jeb Bush.
The winner of the Johnson-Lee contest will face Democrat Alex Sink in November.
Johnson concedes he can't reduce rates, and says the current crisis results from years of artificially low rates. But he talks of "enormous" insurance industry profits and the "ugly underbelly" of the industry's clout in the Legislature.
"Insurance lobbyists and insurance executives have gotten everything they've asked for from this legislative process over and over and over again," Johnson says.
Lee played a key role in crafting an insurance bill containing rate relief for consumers and incentives to get insurers to write policies. While Johnson was making speeches, Lee says, he was working on solutions.
"My hope is the public will examine more than his rhetoric. Examine what he's done," Lee says of Johnson. "What we need is teamwork, not hand grenade throwers."
Told of Johnson's statements, Bill Newton, director of the Florida Consumer Action Network, said: "It would be so easy to agree with that, but it's just not true."
"Insurance companies are greedy, but they're not absolutely evil, either," Newton said.
He said key legislators on the insurance issue handled their jobs responsibly. Solving the crisis calls for pragmatism, Newton said, not "political grandstanding," and in the end, the CFO's role over insurance is very limited.
With many voters unaware of the responsibilities of an elected CFO, Johnson supplies his own job description: a "bully pulpit" that offers frustrated homeowners a voice.
He has launched a Web site, www.bluetarptour.com, where consumers can write personal stories about rising rates. The name refers to the blue tarpaulins still seen on rooftops two years after the devastating storms of 2004.
Johnson is calling for an immediate freeze on rate hikes, citing a decision by insurance regulators to hold future rate hike hearings in Tallahassee, far from where most consumers live.
"It lends to the sense that Tallahassee doesn't care - that we're trying to squirrel issues away," he said.
Bob Lotane, spokesman for the state Office of Insurance Regulation, said a rate freeze is not allowed by state law. The independent agency, which reports to Bush and the Cabinet, decided to curtail local hearings because of poor attendance, but plans to continue holding them locally in cases that affect large numbers of policyholders.
Johnson says consumers don't know about hearings because they are advertised only in Florida Administrative Weekly, an obscure publication read mostly by bureaucrats and lobbyists.
"Could those hearings be advertised better? We think there's absolutely some validity to that," Lotane said.
Lotane said hearings will be broadcast on a public access channel and will allow more thorough review by the Tallahassee-based public counsel who is charged with protecting consumers' interests.
Much of Johnson's fiery rhetoric is aimed at a recently passed insurance regulation bill that he opposed and Lee supported.
Johnson has long been viewed as an outsider in the collegial atmosphere of the Legislature. But what was a handicap for him as a lawmaker may become an asset as a candidate if sentiment against the industry continues to rise.
His populist pitch is laced with incendiary rhetoric that by inference criticizes not only Lee but all of his fellow Republicans who run state government. In that sense, Johnson mimics the election year pitch of most Democrats.
Referring to the insurers' clout in the Capitol, Johnson says: "I'm going to expose the ugly underbelly of what has been going on up here."
This is the first contested race for CFO since the post was created by voters in a downsizing of the state Cabinet. Tom Gallagher, who holds the office, was elected without opposition in 2002 and is running for governor.
The CFO monitors all state expenditures, licenses insurance agents and serves as state fire marshal. In addition, as a member of the Cabinet, the CFO casts one of four votes on policy affecting education, the environment and other issues.
Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.
[Last modified July 20, 2006, 00:46:19]
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