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GOP race for Senate bid is tale of 2 cities

Rep. Bill McCollum draws on his power in Washington, while Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher is big in Tallahassee.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 2000

WASHINGTON -- The table was filled with name tags. One for a representative of the Mortgage Bankers Association. Another for the lobbyist from Banc One. Another for the National Home Equity Mortgage Association. Most of them paid $1,000 a pop.

There was nothing unusual about the Capitol Hill fundraising event in March for Rep. Bill McCollum's Senate campaign. Special interests gathered to sip cocktails and pay tribute to the powerful member of the House banking and judiciary committees who helps regulate their businesses.

It's the way Washington works, and it helps explain why McCollum has outraised his rival for the Republican nomination, state Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher, by a margin of 3-to-1. But it's not a savory sight. Which may explain why McCollum barred reporters from the event, and why a departing contributor furiously ripped off his name tag when he spotted a reporter approaching with pad in hand.

In the same room the following evening, Gallagher held his event. It was much less well-attended, and it showed why the race for the Republican nomination to succeed retiring Sen. Connie Mack is shaping up to be a tale of two cities. In the end, each candidate may be defined, for better or worse, by the city in which he has spent most of his career: Washington or Tallahassee.

Gallagher's event was a "meet and greet" that drew more friends than lobbyists. Perhaps because he is a state official with little leverage to raise money from the Washington PACs that so generously contribute to his rival's campaign, he did not fear opening the doors to reporters. But he did with a certain air of resignation, like a bar owner who waives the cover charge because his band is not drawing a crowd.

"I'm just trying to get to know some folks" in the nation's capital, Gallagher said, insisting he was not prospecting for cash.

That's not something he'd have to do in that other capital, Tallahassee. Gallagher has spent the better part of three decades there as a legislator, insurance commissioner, education commissioner -- and two-time candidate for governor.

In fact, Gallagher's name is recognizable to more Florida voters than McCollum's. He has run five statewide campaigns and won three, while the Senate race is McCollum's first bid for statewide office.

In Tampa last week, about 80 key fundraisers from across the state gathered to talk money in a private meeting with Gallagher.

"Looks like we're falling away to nothing," Gallagher deadpanned.

Yet Gallagher and his fundraisers acknowledge they have to step up their efforts. McCollum raised $3.3-million by the end of March, while Gallagher raised $1.1-million.

The winner of the Sept. 5 Republican primary will have to reload to battle the presumptive Democratic nominee, state Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson. Nelson has raised more than $3.1-million and can save his money for the general election.

The different backgrounds of the Republican candidates are reflected in the pages and pages of campaign contributions, and the source of the money will be a major campaign theme.

McCollum, the Washington insider, has raised more than 14 percent of his money from political action committees. The total adds up to more than $479,000. Nearly one-third of those contributions, $153,000, come from finance, insurance and real estate interests that McCollum has helped regulate as a member of the House banking committee.

Gallagher's total contributions from political action committees: $30,000.

"When you're a Washington insider, you are going to be fueled by Washington lobbyists," Gallagher said of McCollum's fundraising last week. "When you have been there 20 years, you have got a lot of IOUs to collect."

Like any congressional veteran, McCollum has left many tracks in the public record that leave him vulnerable to such charges. In 1997, for example, he drew the ire of Democrats and Republicans alike on the banking panel when he tried to kill a provision in committee that would establish low-cost bank accounts for the working poor.

Banking Chairman Jim Leach, R-Iowa, said he was concerned McCollum's move "would allow commercial firms to dominate the heart of most small communities." The provision's sponsor, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., was more harsh.

She accused McCollum of being "under the pressure of a special interest group," the American Bankers Association. "I'm here for the consumers. They don't have high-paying lobbyists up here handing out huge campaign contributions," Waters said.

Lacking McCollum's clout with the PACs, Gallagher intends to pitch himself to voters as the candidate of "Florida values." He will try to portray McCollum as a creature of Washington.

McCollum doesn't think the strategy will work. In fact, he sees his Washington experience as an advantage.

"I have relationships and friendships and know the national issues far better than Tom Gallagher does," McCollum said in an interview last week. "It's only natural that those who are involved in the issues that we're talking about here in Washington would think first that I would serve better in the U.S. Senate."

He is quick to boast of contributions from congressional leaders such as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who joined him at an Orlando fundraiser, and insiders such as Jack Kemp, the former HUD secretary and vice presidential nominee who appeared at a fundraiser in Fort Lauderdale.

McCollum also has been endorsed by more GOP members of Florida's congressional delegation than Gallagher, including Rep. Mike Bilirakis of Palm Harbor.

"We're not embarrassed or apologetic about any money we've raised so far," said Phil Handy, McCollum's finance chairman. "We're having a hard time getting lobbyists and hangers-on in Tallahassee to give to our campaign. I guess that would be Tom's constituency."

McCollum and his supporters aren't so willing to talk about another Washington angle that he is exploiting in his fundraising.

In interviews, McCollum downplays his high-profile role as one of the House managers of President Clinton's impeachment trial.

But he uses that role as a national fundraising tool aimed at conservative Republicans.

"My decision to run for Senate was greatly influenced by the time I spent serving as one of the House managers trying to protect the integrity of the Constitution and the nation," reads the front of one fundraising envelope.

Gallagher noted that McCollum's fundraising techniques do not match his campaign rhetoric when it comes to impeachment. He said emphasizing impeachment would "create problems down the road" in the general election with voters who believe it was extreme.

"You can't have it both ways in politics," Gallagher said.

As McCollum and Gallagher compete for contributions, they are waging another behind-the-scenes battle to see who can stand closest to Gov. Jeb Bush, a popular governor with the state's most impressive fundraising network.

"Being close to the Bush family is the thing to do this year in politics," said Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas.

Publicly, Bush is neutral in the Republican Senate primary even though he and Gallagher have discussed the campaign. So is developer Al Hoffman, who was Bush's finance chairman in 1998 and has led the state fundraising drive for the presidential campaign of Bush's older brother, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Hoffman has contributed to McCollum and Gallagher.

By other measures, though, Gallagher has an edge in aligning himself with Bush.

Gallagher, not McCollum, is a co-chair of George W. Bush's campaign team in Florida. Gallagher, not McCollum, has accompanied the Bush brothers on campaign or fundraising trips throughout the state. And Gallagher, not McCollum, accompanied Bush on a one-day campaign trip to New Hampshire before the nation's first primary.

Among the 21 Floridians who are "Pioneers" for George W. Bush because they have raised $100,000 or more for the presidential campaign, Gallagher can count seven in his camp. They include Jim Blosser, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer with ties to Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga and Gallagher's finance chairman; Tom Petway, a Jacksonville insurance executive and Bush ally who chairs the state Board of Regents; and Zachariah P. Zachariah, a Fort Lauderdale doctor.

"Most of the previous Bush supporters are supporting Tom, but of course McCollum has some," said Zachariah, who was courted by McCollum and Gallagher. "Tom has run statewide races and people have known him for a long period of time. McCollum is popular around Orlando, but he has not traveled the state."

Among the five Bush Pioneers on McCollum's team are Tre Evers, an Orlando consultant who is McCollum's campaign manager; Nelson Fairbanks, president and chief executive of U.S. Sugar Corp. in Clewiston; and Ned Siegel, a Boca Raton developer.

Below the Pioneers, Gallagher appears to have deeper support among influential fundraisers who raised money for Jeb Bush and contributed to the Foundation for Florida's Future, the non-profit foundation Bush established between his 1994 and 1998 campaigns.

"They have a record of success and in may ways share more moderate views," Blosser said of the Bush money men supporting Gallagher.

But McCollum is continuing to reach out to the same group.

Handy recently sent a letter addressed, "Dear fellow Jeb supporter." The mailing reinforced McCollum's pitch as the conservative heir to Mack while trying to link McCollum with the Bush brothers.

"Forget what the names are at the top of the lists," Handy said. "Look at the length of the list and the size of the contributions, and you'll see who got the benefit of the apparatus of the state of Florida."

-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett, computer assisted reporting specialist Constance Humburg, news researcher Cathy Wos and transcriber Barbara Moch contributed to this report.

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