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Democrats clash over insurance hikes

But in a televised debate, the gubernatorial candidates save some of their fire for Republicans.

By JENNIFER LIBERTO and ALEX LEARY
Published July 23, 2006


FORT LAUDERDALE - After months of ramped-up tension, the Democratic candidates for governor, U.S. Rep. Jim Davis and state Sen. Rod Smith, faced each other for their first televised showdown Saturday night at an annual Florida Democratic Party fundraiser.

Insurance and education issues, such as raising teacher pay and reducing class size, emerged as key issues in the forum. And both men took turns bashing Republicans for their handling of such issues.

"I think time's up for the Republican Party, Charlie Crist, Tom Gallagher, and this Florida Legislature. For too long they think they've owned this state," Davis said.

Neither candidate strayed far from speeches they usually make.

The congressman from Tampa and state senator from Alachua even dressed alike, with red ties, blue shirts and dark suits.

Nearly every time he spoke, Davis took a swipe at the Legislature, and Smith by inclusion, blaming it for the kowtowing to lobbyists out to protect industries like insurance, development and companies seeking economic development incentives.

"This Legislature is always trying to take credit for economic development; they have not met a tax break they cannot support in Tallahassee," said Davis, who appeared forceful and even once pounded his fist so hard that he startled himself.

Smith, who looked more comfortable than Davis, also blamed Washington a couple of times for its lack of attention to Florida. He asserted that Congress did not make good on its promise for Everglades restoration dollars.

Davis said the fight over funding was made tougher by the Legislature when it weakened pollution standards.

One of Smith's strongest responses came when questioned about how he would end partisanship. Smith said he had made progress in building coalitions in the Republican-held Senate. He mentioned blocking Republican efforts to prevent a feeding tube from being removed from Terri Schiavo last year and a drive to weaken the class-size amendment and to put vouchers into the state Constitution this year.

"We don't need Washington politics in Tallahassee," Smith said. "What we need in Tallahassee, is what we've done our best to do in the Florida Senate ... and that's getting a group together to build a consensus."

Davis, who also took credit for blocking Schiavo intervention, answered that the Legislature has had plenty of time to work together.

"You can put pressure on the Florida Legislature to do the right thing," Davis said. "They had years to work together to deal with this homeowners insurance crisis. They did nothing."

Smith and Davis clashed the most over how to deal with the state's skyrocketing property insurance premiums, brought on by a slew of hurricanes in recent years.

Davis said the Legislature, and Smith, created a loophole in state law that allows wind and flood insurers to blame each to the detriment of homeowners. "We are one storm away from an economic disaster," Davis said.

"There's not a loophole. ... There never was," Smith shot back.

He said marrying the wind and flood coverage again would only increase rates.

Davis later said that Smith was echoing what he has heard from the insurance industry.

The rivals arrived at the Broward Convention Center shortly after 6 p.m. to the boisterous applause of supporters.

The event drew about 1,000 people and was expected to raise about $400,000.

On the second floor of a convention center, the Broward Boys & Girls Club drum line thumped for Davis.

"When I say Jim, you say Davis," a young man shouted into a bullhorn.

Davis, was accompanied by U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings of Miramar. "We're ready for the rumble in the jungle," Hastings shouted. Turning to Davis, he said, "As we say in the vernacular, 'He the man.' "

About the same time, Smith's "Straight Talk" tour bus pulled up. The state senator gave a thumbs-up and headed upstairs with several dozen supporters in tow, chanting "Rod. Rod. Rod."

The primary election is scheduled for Sept. 5, with the general election Nov. 7.