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    Majority could hinge on a pill

    Democrats need to win a South Florida district. But their candidate's ties to a drug company are an issue.

    By BILL ADAIR

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 23, 2000


    FORT LAUDERDALE -- A little orange capsule may determine whether Democrats win control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

    The capsule, a generic drug called Cartia XT, has become the hottest campaign issue in Florida's 22nd Congressional District, a narrow coastal strip that stretches from Miami-Dade County to Juno Beach.

    Republican Clay Shaw, a 20-year incumbent, is being challenged by state Rep. Elaine Bloom, who is considered one of the best hopes for the Democratic Party. If the Democrats win at least six Republican seats around the nation, they can take over the House.

    Bloom's momentum in the race stalled two weeks ago because of revelations that she was a board member of Andrx Corp., a Fort Lauderdale drug company that accepted $89-million from a competitor to delay putting Cartia on the market. In a blitz of TV ads, Shaw says the delay forced thousands of senior citizens to pay higher prices for heart drugs.

    Bloom is scrambling to rebut the charges and fight new allegations that she got rich from the company. As a former board member, she owns more than $4-million in Andrx stock.

    The problems come at a crucial time for the Democrats, who wanted to pick up at least one GOP congressional seat in Florida. In addition to Bloom, Democrats in two other key races are facing stiff competition.

    In Polk County, car dealer Mike Stedem is facing an uphill battle in his race against Republican state Rep. Adam Putnam. In Orlando, former Orange County Chairwoman Linda Chapin is in a close race with Republican Ric Keller.

    "These races are tightening up," said Amy Walter, who tracks Florida congressional seats for the Cook Political Report. She says Democrats probably need at least one of the three Florida seats to win the House.

    'Jump off the cliff together'

    Congress has its share of fire-breathing Republicans, but Shaw is a quiet man with the air of a leprechaun.

    After 20 years in the House, he has a prime spot on the powerful Ways and Means Committee and has earned a reputation as a moderate who can pass big bills. He wrote the 1996 welfare reform law and has been a key player on Social Security.

    He says Congress and the president must agree on some painful choices to make sure the program doesn't go bankrupt. He says Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush have not said enough about their long-term plans for the program.

    But with his low-key style, Shaw is not a dynamic candidate. Speaking last week to senior citizens at a Fort Lauderdale retirement home, he did little to inspire the crowd.

    "You know me, you know my record," he said. "You either like me or you don't like me."

    Still, the crowd seemed to love him. His moderate views and attention to local needs have enabled him to survive in a Democratic area. He says his time in city government -- he was Fort Lauderdale mayor from 1975 to 1980 -- and three years as a judge taught him an important lesson: "People just want you to listen to them."

    In contrast to Shaw's subdued style, Bloom is an intense, serious woman who says her Republican opponent is out of touch with his liberal constituents.

    "Clay Shaw does not represent the views of the people in his district," she told a group of gay supporters at a Fort Lauderdale home last week. She said she has passed many bills in the Florida House that are more in tune with the district's liberal leanings.

    Bloom has been especially critical of Shaw's Social Security plan, which would give workers a 2 percent tax credit. They would invest that money in mutual funds and, at retirement, it would be used to help finance the worker's Social Security benefit.

    She says the plan is too risky because the stock market is too volatile.

    Drug prices have been another big issue for Bloom. She has criticized Shaw for taking donations from drug companies and endorsing a Medicare plan the drug companies support.

    But now, the Shaw campaign has turned the tables on her.

    A bottle of pills

    Five years ago, Fort Lauderdale-based Andrx applied for federal approval for Cartia, a generic version of Cardizem, a drug that improves blood flow to the heart.

    The company was then sued by Hoechst Marion Roussel Inc., the maker of Cardizem, which wanted to enforce its patent rights. While the companies were in talks over that suit in September 1997, the Food and Drug Administration gave Andrx tentative approval for the generic drug. Nine days later, Andrx and Hoechst struck a deal.

    The complex deal gave Andrx the right to ultimately make the generic heart drug. Hoechst agreed to pay Andrx $10-million for every three months the generic drug was kept off the market. With no competition, Hoechst stood to gain hundreds of millions of dollars by selling its drug at higher prices. It ultimately paid Andrx $89-million.

    The Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against the companies, alleging the agreement stifled competition and hurt consumers. Separately, lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit against Hoechst and Andrx for being anti-competitive.

    In a ruling last June, a federal judge said the deal "constitutes a restraint of trade" and "is unlawful." The companies have appealed.

    Shaw says the deal penalized senior citizens who use the heart drug. They had to pay higher prices for Cardizem when there was no competition. Andrx has since brought Cartia, the lower-price generic drug, onto the market.

    Shaw's TV ads about the controversy have blasted Bloom for being hypocritical about drug prices. "The drug company made $89-million while seniors paid the price," one ad says. "But now, one of the directors who helped run that company is running for Congress, claiming to be a friend of seniors. How could she?"

    Bloom, a member of the Andrx board of directors from 1993 until last May, knew about the deal and says it was in the best interest of the company and consumers. It prevented Andrx from suffering potentially catastrophic penalties from a patent lawsuit. The $89-million enabled Andrx to reformulate Cartia so it would not violate patents, which allowed Andrx to get the product to the market more quickly, said Bloom and Scott Lodin, the company's vice president and general counsel.

    Bloom's effort to rebut the charges has stumbled, however.

    She brought a bottle of Cartia pills to a debate to show it was cheaper than Cardizem, but her effort backfired. A Palm Beach Post reporter discovered the pills had been improperly prescribed for her campaign manager because they were not medically necessary.

    Bloom had been steadily gaining ground on Shaw, but the drug revelation is a serious blow to her campaign. With control of the House depending on a handful of races that include the 22nd District, it's possible the drug controversy could mean the Democrats don't take control.

    Walter, the Cook Political Report analyst, said Bloom's campaign "needed perfection."

    "Even the smallest error could tip it one way or the other."

    The race "was about prescription drugs," Walter said. "Now it's about her interest in a drug company."

    Other races to watch

    Meanwhile, two races in Central Florida are close.

    In Orlando, Chapin, the former Orange County chairwoman, has mounted a surprisingly strong campaign for the seat being vacated by Rep. Bill McCollum. The 8th District is considered Republican turf, but it has been listed by many pundits as a toss-up because Chapin is well-known and has lots of Republican support.

    The Republican nominee, Keller, got a late start for the general election race because he had an Oct. 3 runoff to win the nomination.

    Since then, the race has been considered a dead heat.

    "There has been a lot of bravado from Democrats in this district for months, but I'm starting to hear a twinge of nervousness," Walter said.

    In Lakeland, Stedem, the Democratic candidate, is running against Putnam, a state legislator. The race has become a debate over who is better suited for Congress: Stedem, the 50-year-old car dealer who has never held elected office, or Putnam, 26, whose only career experience is four years in public office.

    Putnam was regarded a shoo-in, but it quickly became one of the most expensive races in the state. Stedem has spent about $350,000 on TV time, while Democratic groups are spending an additional $450,000 on his behalf. Putnam is expected to spend about $480,000, with Republican groups spending an additional $480,000.

    Republicans released a poll last week saying Putnam was ahead by 19 percentage points, but Stedem's polls have showed him down by only 2 percentage points.

    Tom Eubank, Stedem's campaign manager, says: "It's down to crunch time. My stomach is tied up in knots."

    Walter, who has followed the race closely, says Stedem needs a dramatic boost to win.

    "Something needs to break Stedem's way," she said. "The whole campaign was going to be about age and experience, but I haven't seen him deliver a knockout punch on it."

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