Foes call Crist nonplayer on insurance bill

Crist says he would have vetoed spring's measure. Why didn't he speak up , Davis asks.

Published October 27, 2006

ORLANDO - Charlie Crist stayed on the sidelines in the spring as legislators debated how to fix Florida's battered insurance market. Now he's paying for his silence.

Less than two weeks before the election, Crist says he probably would have vetoed a bill passed by fellow Republicans and signed by Gov. Jeb Bush, who conceded the bill would raise policyholders' rates.

Democrats, including rival Jim Davis, blasted Crist on Thursday, accusing him of failing to lead on a critical issue.

"I'm not a grandstander," Crist said while campaigning for governor in Orlando, explaining his silence. "The bill didn't pass until the last night of the session ... let's be fair."

As attorney general and a Cabinet member, Crist is one of four statewide elected officials overseeing regulation of the insurance industry.

Crist said he would have opposed the bill because money appropriated by lawmakers should have gone to policyholders rather than to Citizens Property Insurance to reduce rate increases.

Also included in the 156-page bill, which passed in the final hour of the 2005 legislative session after weeks of negotiation, was a popular new $250-million grant program to help homeowners harden their houses against hurricanes, a $250-million loan program for insurance companies and limited flexibility for insurers to adopt rate increases without state approval.

Later Thursday, Crist backtracked and issued a statement saying he would have supported some parts of the bill, such as grants to help Floridians make their homes more resistant to future hurricanes.

But critics said the last-minute opposition showed Crist's lack of leadership.

"The attorney general had his chance to stand up and didn't," Davis said. "I will as governor."

The issue gave Davis a desperately needed opening to accuse Crist of shirking his responsibilities. For the past week, Crist has run a TV ad highlighting Davis' missed votes as a member of Congress.

Davis' campaign also enlisted a key lawmaker and consumer advocate to join in the criticism.

"At no point was Charlie Crist anywhere to be found. He was absolutely AWOL," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "... Charlie Crist was nowhere when he needed to be standing up and fighting."

"One person we never saw ... was Charlie Crist," said Bill Newton of the Florida Consumer Action Network, who said Crist's help would have been useful in a debate dominated by insurance lobbyists. "He was never there in the room on this issue."

Crist and Davis have offered competing proposals to control the rise in insurance premiums, and polls show the issue is a top priority for voters.

A theme of Davis' campaign is to hold "backyard rebellions" with homeowners and business owners strapped by high insurance costs.

Asked why he didn't get involved in negotiations on the insurance bill, Crist, a former state senator, said: "Was there? I'm not in the legislative branch anymore."

News releases issued by Crist's office in May show he kept a close eye on bills he considered priorities, such as creation of a cyber crime unit in the Attorney General's Office and a tougher domestic violence law.