Crist chooses running mate

Published September 13, 2006

CAPE CORAL -- Republican nominee for governor Charlie Crist on Wednesday chose as his lieutenant governor running mate Rep. Jeff Kottkamp of Cape Coral, a trial lawyer with deep roots in conservative southwest Florida.

Kottkamp, 45, has been a member of the House since 2000, and has been a reliable Republican vote on such issues as state intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, which Crist has opposed.

Kottkamp survived a major health scare two years ago, when a mold infection following heart bypass surgery kept him in a medically induced coma for several weeks while his wife was pregnant with their child. But he said he is in good health and his cardiologist cleared him to run for statewide office.

“I just felt in my heart that Jeff is the right man at the right time,” Crist told reporters. “Jeff’s been through a lot. He’s a fighter, and Florida needs a fighter.”

Kottkamp said he and Crist forged a friendship in 1998, the year Crist made an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate. He said he was eager to discuss issues such as rising homeowners’ insurance and property taxes across the state.

“Let’s go get 'em,” Kottkamp said of Democrats. Crist and Kottkamp made their first public appearance on the front lawn of the Kottkamps’ home, which is backed by a canal in a middle-class subdivision. Also in TV pictures were Kottkamp’s wife ,Cyndie, and their towheaded two-year-old son, Jackson, making for an arresting family portrait alongside Crist, who is single, childless and a renter.

The decision was kept top secret and did not leak out in advance, though Kottkamp’s name was mentioned as a finalist for the post. Nine reporters were transported by plane from Tallahassee to Cape Coral without being told where they were going until the planes were in the air.

For Crist, the selection of Kottkamp represents a safe political choice and gives the Republican ticket two middle-aged white men in one of the most diverse states in the country. Three other finalists, including two women, one of them Hispanic, made Crist’s short list. But he said Kottkamp was his favorite in part because they have a close personal friendship.

“I think Charlie made a choice based on who he wants to work with,” said Stuart Stevens, Crist’s media adviser.

Kottkamp’s appointment brought an icy reception from some corners of Florida’s pro-Republican business community, who were upset that Kottkamp was the lone Republican in the House who voted against a bill that made it harder for injured parties to seek out deep-pocket defendants in personal injury cases.

“We’re still evaluating that,” Rick McAllister of the Florida Retail Federation said of Crist’s choice. “Right now, we’re not taking a position.”

Partly as a result of that vote, Kottkamp had the lowest rating of any House Republican in the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s 2006 report card -- an 85.

At a tense House committee meeting last January, Kottkamp publicly criticized business lobbyists who trained a video camera on lawmakers who opposed the bill. But even though some business groups are leery of Kottkamp, a former defense lawyer, for joining the plaintiffs’ bar, it is inconceivable that they would switch sides and support Democrat Jim Davis.

The selection of Kottkamp drew sharp criticism from Michael Schiavo, who said Crist “has rewarded a politician who clearly supports government intervention in our most private family decisions.

”In addition to voting to intervene in the Schiavo case, Kottkamp voted in favor of legislation that raised basic monthly telephone rates in 2003 -- an act Crist also has criticized as bad for consumers.

“Charlie and I probably aren’t going to agree on every single thing, but my wife and I don’t either,” Kottkamp said Wednesday. “But you know what? I tell her she’s right.”

Kottkamp also took a leading role in 2002 when federal agencies sought to freeze the issuance of new boat permits in Southwest Florida because of boat-related deaths and injuries to manatees. Kottkamp spoke at a “Moratorium Madness” rally in Cape Coral attended by about 1,000 boaters, dock owners and real estate agents.

Kottkamp is a native of Indianapolis who moved to Florida as a teenager in 1977. He attended Edison Community College and Florida State, where he graduated in 1984, and received a law degree from the University of Florida in 1987. He has a net worth of $2.9-million.

He chaired the House Judiciary Committee from 2002-2004, but was given the low-profile chairmanship of the Government Operations Committee during the past two years.

Kottkamp underwent 20 surgeries in the summer of 2004 but remembers none of it because of the induced coma. He was sick and eating through a tube during Hurricane Charley, the Republican National Convention and the 2004 Summer Olympics.

“I’m doing good,” Kottkamp said. “My cardiologist will tell you I’m doing fine.”

Kottkamp’s inspiring recovery from a life-threatening illness  is sure to come up in the eight weeks until Election Day. But the newly-minted No. 2 was not so eager to discuss his pending lawsuit against the hospital that treated him.

“I have no idea what’s going on with that,” Kottkamp said.

Crist used the slogan “Fighting for Florida” in the primary campaign, but he now refers to himself as “the people’s governor.” Morgan & Morgan, the personal injury law firm where Kottkamp works, uses the slogan “for the people.” Borrowing those same words at Wednesday’s announcement, Crist said: “I will be an advocate for the people as governor.”

Times staff writers Jennifer Liberto and Craig Pittman contributed to this report, and information from the News-Press of Fort Myers was used. Reporter Steve Bousquet is at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.