Candidate's money flow stuns rivals

The son of a state senator has spent more money than any GOP primary foe has raised in House District 54.

Published August 16, 2006

One candidate has jumped out to a big fundraising lead in the Republican primary race for House District 54. But where that money is coming from has become a campaign issue.

Rod Jones, son of state Sen. Dennis Jones, has raised almost $160,000.

Opponent Jim Frishe, a former state representative, has raised less than $38,000. Jones has already spent about $1,000 more than that.

Two other Republicans running for the nomination trail badly. Mike Petruccelli has raised only a few hundred from contributors to go along with the $3,500 he's loaned himself. David Vecchio shows no money raised at all and also did not show at a recent debate.

The winner will face Democrat Betsy Valentine, a retired psychologist.

Jones, a chiropractor who has never before run for office, has gained a great deal of money from the chiropractic community. He's also received contributions from gambling interests and others with business before the regulated industries committee his father chairs.

Jones says he's gotten these contributions because of personal friendships and connections, not because of his father.

Frishe doesn't buy it.

"Dennis is raising the money," said Frishe, who served six years in the House during the 1980s representing District 57 when he lived in Pinellas Park. "He's twisted a lot of arms. That's what fathers do for sons."

Frishe, who now lives in unincorporated Pinellas County near South Pasadena, says more than half of the contributions to Jones come from outside the Tampa Bay area, including New York, California and Kentucky. Contributors include Chevron, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck and Bank of America's political action committee.

Jones also has received dozens of contributions from the Miami area and Tallahassee. Frishe said he hasn't even shopped for political money in the capital because he knows his opponent has that locked up.

While insisting he's doing the work, Rod Jones says he does use his father's fundraising system and works hard at it. He says he's embarrassed to ask for money because he's always paid his way personally in life. But he said voters should respect an ability to gather contributions.

"You want a legislator that knows how to find money," Jones said. "I want to bring money back here."

Jones also said people should be pleased with his connections to his powerful father. He said he's learned from him, experience that he says will pay off if he's in Tallahassee.

"I don't fall too far from the tree," he said. "I'll be heard."

Petruccelli said Jones' fundraising afield for a primary bodes ill for the party in the general election. He also said Jones' refusal to appear at an all-candidates debate Saturday at Calvary Episcopal Church in Indian Rocks Beach was a sign Jones is relying on his money, not his political skill. He said Jones fared poorly in earlier candidate forums. Jones disagrees.

Jones says part of the reason he's gotten funding from outside the area is that people see him as leadership material and are talking to him about higher positions within the Legislature. He said he thinks clout is what will matter because all the candidates have similar views on prevailing issues.

"My issues are the same as on everyone's postcard," Jones said. "But I want to get things done."

All the primary candidates talk about insurance as the pressing issue and say they want insurance companies to be forced to operate more fairly in Florida. Frishe and Jones both think there might have to be a federal catastrophic insurance, like flood insurance, but Frishe says insurers have "gamed the system" by forming Florida subsidiaries instead of spreading their risk across the country.

Petruccelli, who is an insurance and real estate agent, said insurers have overly influenced the Legislature. He said he spoke about the looming crisis during legislative hearings in the 1990s, but the problem still came.

For example, Petruccelli said, some people live in a masonry house on an island and can't get insurance for their house, but they can get insurance for their car and boat. They can get insurance for a cottage along the Alabama or Georgia coast but not a coastal home in Florida.

"That's a form of redlining," Petruccelli said. "We've either got to have some common sense and a fair playing field or we're not going to lick this problem."

Vecchio, who works as a driver for United Parcel Service, said he wants insurance companies to demonstrate they're losing money before they can receive higher rates. He said a one-year drop in profits doesn't constitute justification.

"We're not in the business of trying to make people wealthy by law," he said. "They're just gouging people to death."

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sptimes.com