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For him, quitting wasn't an option

Tom Gallagher says because of his son, he stayed in the governor’s race after trailing. What’s next? He’s not sure.

By JONI JAMES
Published September 17, 2006


COCONUT GROVE — The family tableau appeared countless times in the yearlong campaign leading up to the Republican gubernatorial primary: Tom Gallagher at the microphone, his wife, Laura, smiling behind him, her hand on the shoulder of their fidgeting 7-year-old, Charlie.

But when Gallagher, 62, took the stage election night to acknowledge his crushing defeat by Charlie Crist, little Charlie didn’t need his mom’s guiding hand.

As Gallagher conceded gracefully and pledged his support to Crist, Charlie moved to his father’s side and turned slightly away from the audience, his blond head upturned, his blue eyes riveted on his father.

The previous 30 minutes, when Gallagher had privately called Crist to concede, had been tough on the family.
Charlie needed lots of consoling before taking the stage. He hadn’t understood that his father might lose.

“He pulled it together,” Gallagher said, “which for 7 years old isn’t easy to do.”

Gallagher, sitting last week in the Capitol office he will soon vacate as the state’s outgoing chief financial officer, said his son is one of the main reasons he stayed in the race after polls showed his chances of winning on Sept. 5 were slim to none.

In the end, he lost to Crist by nearly 2-1, receiving fewer votes than even controversial Republican Senate hopeful Katherine Harris.

“How would I ever tell my son when the ball game is 20-to-nothing not to quit?,’’ Gallagher said. “He would look back at me and say, 'Well, you quit when you were running for governor.’

“You want him to know that you don’t quit because you’re not winning,’’ Gallagher said. “That to me was as good a reason to be in that race as anything else.”

***

Tom Gallagher’s phone doesn’t ring much these days. The job offers, so far, aren’t pouring in.

After spending most of the past three decades in public office, his life postprimary is abruptly low-key and laid back. The future is uncertain, save for his plans to help his son build a boat for a Cub Scout competition.

Gallagher’s first week off the campaign trail, he traveled to St. Louis to attend a National Association of Insurance Commissioners meeting, something he’d not had time for recently.

He remains one of the state’s four elected executives (and one of its four insurance regulators) until January’s inauguration of a new governor and Cabinet.

After the inauguration he has no firm plans -— an anticlimactic end to a public career spanning most of the past 33 years. Gallagher has spent 13 years in the Legislature and 14 years in Cabinet jobs. He won’t rule out another campaign, but says he isn’t planning one.

“Last time I got out (in 1995 after six years as state treasurer) I thought I was done, and see what happened,” he said on Sept. 7, just two days after the election as he flew around the state with Crist and Gov. Jeb Bush on a Republican unity tour.

In 1999, Gallagher returned to the state Cabinet as the education commissioner. Two years later, he won a second stint as state treasurer, then in 2003 he became the chief financial officer.

Though his next job is unknown, he doesn’t necessarily need one. The former library furniture salesman and mortgage insurance broker has invested well in real estate and was already the richest man running for governor with a net worth of $1.9-million.

Plus, as a longtime elected official, Gallagher already receives an early retirement benefit from the state pension fund of nearly $42,000 annually. By the time he leaves office in January, he’ll qualify for an estimated $21,600 more in annual retirement benefits for serving the past six years as a Cabinet officer.

But Gallagher, whose energy level suggests a man 10 years younger, isn’t planning retirement. In the short term, he’s looking for a business opportunity, though he’s not sure what it will be.

“I’ll be running something whether it means I’ll go buy a franchise and run a business. I’ve got a 7-year-old to educate,’’ he said.

And it won’t necessarily be in Florida. His wife, he said, has suggested Atlanta as a possibility. But the couple have ruled out moving to Washington or New York City — two spots where his government expertise and insurance acumen might net him a number of generous posts.

When he dropped his bid for the U.S. Senate in 2000 and chose to run instead for a second stint as state treasurer, Gallagher said the couple decided they didn’t want to live in the nation’s capital. That hasn’t changed.

And he rules out running again for the U.S. Senate.

“If they gave me the seat and said you can be in the Senate, I wouldn’t do it. I don’t want to be in the U.S. Senate. Or in D.C. either,’’ said Gallagher, whose Vietnam-era military service was as a member of the Army’s ceremonial Old Guard in Washington. “I lived there and I loved it, but I don’t want to live there now. It’s like New York. I love New York … But I don’t want to live there.”

***

Gallagher has already appeared on the stump backing Crist in the general election, a move that has helped mute the vicious intraparty rivalry that had consumed both campaigns in the weeks leading up to the primary.

Sitting in his state office last week, he shrugged when told some friends wonder if he wouldn’t have done better had he stuck to a more moderate Republican message, as he had in previous campaigns, rather than the social conservative agenda he pushed in this one.

But that’s not who he is anymore, Gallagher said. “I was consistent from Day One of this campaign, and I haven’t changed, I haven’t switched,’’ he said. “I’m totally comfortable and satisfied with the whole thing.”

Asked if he wished he’d run television ads earlier, as Crist did over Memorial Day weekend, he shrugged again.

“That’s like asking me if I wish we’d had $5-million more, because that’s what it would have taken,’’ he said. “We raised more money than we thought we ever would and he raised even more.” Roughly a week before the vote, Gallagher reported raising a total of $9.2-million in cash compared to Crist’s $14-million.

If he could do anything over again, he said, he would reach out to his ex-wife, Louise, before the campaign was in full gear.

Her conversation with a Tampa Tribune reporter led to negative stories about his failed first marriage. He has talked to her since. “That was my fault for not calling her,” he said.

Gallagher has already said he wishes he hadn’t traded insurance stocks while insurance commissioner, another controversy that helped his opponent. But he doesn’t agree with the state Ethics Commission that he may have violated state law. Depending on what penalty the group imposes, he may appeal.

But for now, Gallagher suggested, none of that matters. He figures he’s got a good month of downtime ahead of him to reconnect with Charlie and his wife before his job hunt begins in earnest. And there’s a transition plan to approve for his successor as chief financial officer.

Last week, sitting relaxed in his office, Gallagher had a new project on his mind.

His biggest personal priority at the moment, he said, was acquiring a new dog for Charlie, who told reporters on the campaign trail he longed for a large dog he’d call “Jack” to join the family’s bichon frise, “Fluffy.”

Sometime this week, Charlie will get a new 2-month-old chocolate Labradoodle, a cross between a Labrador and a standard poodle, that his parents are having shipped from an Illinois kennel. It’s a surprise.

“I think it’s going to be a good dog for him to grow up with,” Gallagher said.

Joni James can be reached at (850) 224 7263 or jjames@sptimes.com