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Friend, 'fighter' joins Crist

Running mate Jeff Kottkamp, a 46-year-old lawyer, is a close political ally of Charlie Crist.

By STEVE BOUSQUET and DEIRDRE MORROW
Published September 13, 2006


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

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

Kottkamp also survived a major health scare two years ago, when an infection after five heart bypasses left him in an induced coma for several weeks while his wife was pregnant with their child.

He said he is in good health today and that 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 the scene were Kottkamp’s wife Cyndie and their towheaded 2-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.

“There’s a great bond here, and I plan on winning,” Crist said.

Kottkamp’s appointment brought a chilly reception from some corners of the business community, still mindful that Kottkamp was the only Republican in the House who sided with Democrats in opposing 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 Kottkamp’s selection. “Right now, we’re not taking a position.”

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

Crist’s selection of Kottkamp is likely to invite further criticism that the GOP ticket is too closely aligned with trial lawyers.

Crist was criticized by opponents in the Republican primary for accepting significant financial support from trial lawyers, who usually favor more liberal candidates.

Crist’s new running mate works for the personal injury law firm Morgan & Morgan, known for billboards on major highways and the slogan, “For the people.”

But even though some business groups may be leery of Kottkamp’s trial bar ties, it is inconceivable that they would switch sides and support Democrat Jim Davis.

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

Besides 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. But both men downplayed those differences.

“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 sided with boaters and dock owners in 2002 when federal agencies sought to freeze issuance of new boat permits in southwest Florida because of boat-related deaths and injuries to manatees.

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 to 2004, but was given the low-profile chairmanship of the Government Operations Committee 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 surviving with the help of a feeding tube during Hurricane Charley, the Republican National Convention and the 2004 Summer Olympics.

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

Kottkamp’s recovery from a life-threatening illness spawned prayer vigils two years ago and is sure to come up in the eight weeks until Election Day. But the newly minted running mate 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.

Kottkamp was one of the few Republicans who voted against the property insurance package in the 2006 Legislature that critics have said is too pro-industry. Even a Democrat lawmaker praised Crist’s choice.

“He’s not that right-wing,” said Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors, who has served on the Judiciary Committee for six years with Kottkamp.

“He’s a quality guy. I’m not going to make this guy out to be something he’s not.”

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