Timing not the best for lobbyist candidate

Published July 21, 2006

Between elections, when he’s not running for office, Bill McCollum makes a very good living.

As a Washington lobbyist.

It’s McCollum’s latest challenge to be running for office in the year of Jack Abramoff. Politicians everywhere are scrambling to return Abramoff’s tainted campaign money and otherwise distance themselves from the Beltway lobbying culture.

McCollum, 62, a native of Brooksville, qualified Friday as the only Republican candidate for attorney general of Florida.

One by one, his three GOP rivals folded their tents, convinced they had no chance of winning because of McCollum’s huge advantage in name recognition after 20 years in Congress and twice a U.S. Senate candidate, in 2000 and 2004.

McCollum is a lawyer and partner in the firm of Baker & Hostetler. The firm Web site describes him as a member of its “business group, practicing in the federal policy area.”

Though based in Orlando, McCollum also travels to Washington “and represents clients who seek to resolve or avert federal policy-related concerns through congressional or administrative action.”

McCollum was paid $300,000 last year, according to the financial disclosure statement filed this week.

The first opponent who tried to paint McCollum with the “Washington lobbyist” brush was Rep. Everett Rice, the former Pinellas sheriff who has since dropped out of the race.

Told of Rice’s criticism, McCollum called it “a stretch.”

“There are a lot of good people who are earning a living who are trying to represent clients every day,” McCollum said, “and they’re very much chagrined by the world of Jack Abramoff, who’s a crook.”

McCollum has been a registered lobbyist in Washington since 2001, the year after his first run for U.S. Senate in which he lost to Democrat Bill Nelson.

His clients in 2005 included Federated Investors, the National Association of Immigration Judges, Verizon Services Corp. and Institute for Legal Reform.

In past years, clients have included the Mortgage Bankers Association of America, American Resort Development Association, city of Orlando, American Pioneer Title Insurance Co. and Astrazeneca Pharmaceuticals.

The term “Washington lobbyist” has a special resonance this year, not only because of Abramoff’s assorted scandals but a melange of stories and headlines, from Tom DeLay to Duke Cunningham.

“Washington lobbyist” just doesn’t seem like the ideal calling card to be offering to voters in 2006.

A taste of what McCollum can expect over the next few months could be found in Georgia this week, where Ralph

Reed was trounced in his bid for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor.

Reed, the Christian Coalition founder who did business with Abramoff, lost to a Republican rival who flogged him with the “culture of corruption” club in TV ads.

McCollum is in for similar treatment from his likely Democratic opponent, state Sen. Walter “Skip” Campbell of Fort Lauderdale, whose occupation, trial lawyer, also has a special resonance in Florida politics.

Campbell earned his millions suing the kind of business clients McCollum specializes in representing in Washington. A Florida voter couldn’t ask for much more contrast than that.“If you want to call Skip Campbell a trial lawyer, fine. He’s a plaintiffs’ lawyer. There’s no denying it,” says Campbell’s campaign manager, Jeff Garcia.

“But McCollum’s a Washington lobbyist. He’s been a registered lobbyist for five years.”

McCollum never did business with Abramoff. But he got $1,000 from Abramoff in his 2000 Senate race, and two Indian tribes represented by Abramoff gave $1,000 each.

As attorney general, McCollum would be expected to go to bat for consumers against gasoline price gougers, unscrupulous car salesmen and white-collar crooks of all kinds.

The former congressman from suburban Orlando is eager to put his political record, and his reputation, up against Campbell’s.

“My reputation speaks for itself,” McCollum said. “I’m very proud of it.”

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.