tampabay.com

'Real people' in Capitol refreshing

By STEVE Bousquet
Published January 20, 2007


Day after day, real people kept coming, waving handmade signs and wearing "insurance reform now" buttons.

It's a rare sight in Tallahassee when people outnumber lobbyists. It's refreshing - a disinfectant for the political system. It also leads to lofty public expectations.

The clock is ticking. Legislators are working through the weekend, facing a Monday deadline to deliver the reduced rates everybody is demanding.

People are fed up with high premiums and are speaking with one voice. Voters are watching closely what happens in the capital, or at least lawmakers think they are, and that's just as good.

A new governor who ran as a proconsumer populist is feeling the pressure to make good on a promise of lower rates - a sound bite so unambiguous nobody can possibly forget it.

To fall short of a significant rate cut he defines "significant" as 25 to 40 percent would be Charlie Crist's personal Katrina.

Gov. Crist loves it when people are engaged, and he got plenty of it this week.

On Tuesday, three busloads of fed-up policyholders arrived from Tampa Bay. On Wednesday, three more came from Miami.

In English and Spanish, their message was: Help us. Now.

Another two busloads showed up Thursday from Brevard on the Space Coast. They brought petitions signed by 3,500 people.

One of the bleary-eyed visitors was Gary Paiva of Rockledge, who patiently worked his way through a crush of people to shake Crist's hand.

"Thank you for listening to us," Paiva said, clutching Crist's hand. "I want you to know that you're giving me some hope."

When so many real people converge on the capital, they get plenty of attention because they are a rarity.

The insurance lobbyists are here year in and year out. The presence of real people in out-of-the-way Tallahassee is still a novelty, like a delegation of nuns at a hockey game.

This week's parade of upset policyholders received extra attention because the capital was also filled with out-of-town TV crews.

Real people angry about high insurance, demanding help from the state and worried about the Big One - it's a sexy story.

Most Florida TV stations stopped consistently covering the Legislature a long time ago. But they were back this week, demanding that Crist specify what day people's rates will drop.

After a lot of years of covering the Legislature, two unequivocal observations can be made:

No. 1: Lobbyists have a lot of influence. That's their job.

No. 2: All the lobbyists in the world can't match the clout of a mobilized, active electorate that speaks as one.

The people really do have the power. But they have to use it and keep using it. That means writing letters, voting and holding elected leaders accountable.

A big rally on the Capitol steps is a good start, but that's all it is.

For now, the real people with the signs and the worried faces have all gone home, and lawmakers who are just as determined as Crist to cut rates are finding it's more complicated than the governor makes it sound.

They are doing their job: asking questions. Some are resisting Crist's call for a bigger, more competitive Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

The worried face Friday belonged to Crist, concerned about lawmakers focusing on "the process, not the people."

He called a press conference to display blowups of letters from desperate policyholders.

"The people are counting on us," Crist said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.