TALLAHASSEE -- Don't expect the next state insurance commissioner to have his feet off the ground for long. In that job, there's a crisis around every corner.
Top insurance companies claim to have been crippled by Hurricane Andrew and are calling for reforms.
Thousands of motorists are on the roads without any coverage, shooting up the premiums for everyone else.
And politicians still swear they're going to make health insurance easier to get.
It's the winner of the Nov. 8 showdown between Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Tim Ireland for the insurance commissioner's post who will be facing these issues as they oversee one of the most powerful sectors of Florida's economy during the next four years.
Nelson is a former congressman and lawyer from Melbourne who may be best known for having flown in the space shuttle and losing a bitter 1990 primary race against Gov. Lawton Chiles.
Ireland is a four-term lawmaker from Fort Myers and an insurance agent. He's going great lengths to portray himself as an anti-tax, pro-business right-winger.
"I have a vision of a government that looks to solve things with the private sector rather than with more government," Ireland said, explaining that he wants to create an "open market-place" where insurance companies can freely compete.
Nelson says the government can be a positive force with "balanced regulation" of the industry and by starting a national catastrophic fund to help companies in the event of disasters like Andrew.
The candidates generally agree that the price of insurance and the scarcity of coverage is of top concern. There's but one other matter on which they agree.
They both want to hold the office that pays $100,735 a year and is one of six seats on the Florida Cabinet that shares powers with the governor. It's an influential post with three functions.
The office holder serves as state treasurer, insurance commissioner and fire marshal -- all of which controls a department with a $90-million budget and 1,300 employees. The current commissioner, Republican Tom Gallagher, is stepping down after a failed run for governor.
The treasurer manages the state's bank accounts and pension funds. The fire marshal conducts arson investigations and licenses companies that sell fire safety equipment. And the insurance commissioner oversees Florida's $8-billion insurance business and the more than 130,000 agents.
With so much at stake, lots of money has gone into this fight. And, so far, most of it has flowed Nelson's way. He's raised nearly $2 million for a slew of television ads, which have already helped secure him a substantial lead, according to independent polls. By comparison, Ireland hopes to raise just over $300,000 to pay for a small bite of television time and to get his message out on the radio.
There is speculation, fueled by his opponent, that Nelson is using the race as a springboard for another gubernatorial bid, perhaps in 1998. Nelson doesn't rule out the possibility, but insists "it's not worth dwelling on at this point." Instead, Nelson pushes his plans to hire more insurance investigators to weed out fraud. And though it's not all spelled out, he also calls for incentives for insurance companies to take policyholders out of the joint underwriting associations created by the state as a temporary fix when companies stopped writing policies in the wake of Andrew.
Nelson has had the pleasure of being the front-runner since getting in the race in June. But it hasn't stopped his campaign from attacking Ireland, calling the opponent a former liberal who has supported tax hikes and pay raises for legislators.
"(Ireland) claims to be this born-again conservative. But he's been the Republican that the liberals have always counted on to support their new taxes," said Brian May, Nelson's campaign manager.
Ireland accuses Nelson of supporting tax increases when he was in Congress.
"You didn't vote for a little tax, you had three big whoppers," Ireland said to Nelson during a Tallahassee debate, referring to votes on three federal appropriations bills. He has also tried to lump Nelson together with the people involved in the House Post Office scandal and what he called, "the Bill and Hillary health plan."
Jeff Walter, Ireland's campaign manager, said the reason Ireland has focused on partisan differences is because, among other reasons, that's what will help him ride on the coattails of other popular Republicans, such as Sen. Connie Mack and Jeb Bush.
"We're going to paint Bill Nelson as a liberal and talk about his record on taxes. Tim wants to fight issues of crime and education as a member of the Cabinet," Walter said.
Ireland also has accused Nelson of trying to intimidate contributors. He said insurance agents and company officials have told him that Nelson has threatened them if they support Ireland in the race.
Adds Walter: "It's undemocratic and maybe unAmerican for Nelson to be doing this. He is clearly interrupting the process."
Nelson's campaign manager has denied the charges and said Ireland is just trying to pump up his campaign.
"It's just hogwash. It's not true," May said. "He is looking to snip and bite at Nelson every chance he gets."
Some consumer watchdogs have been turned off by Ireland's style.
"Tim Ireland has a lot of great conservative rhetoric. He ought to be running against Bill and Hillary Clinton because that's what his speech is aimed at, not at the substantive issues of the office that is one-seventh of the Florida Cabinet," complained Monte Belote, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network. The group endorsed Karen Gievers, Nelson's primary opponent, and has since endorsed Nelson for the general election.
Belote says the consumer advocates he represents fear that Ireland intends to make the Insurance Department "a friendly place for companies" when their concern is that "it's already too friendly of a place for them."
But Steve Burgess, the Department of Insurance's consumer advocate, said it's no surprise that Ireland is focusing on issues other than insurance. He recognizes that insurance just isn't a touchstone for most voters.
"It's troubling, sure. But it's just the nature of the subject itself. For most people, insurance problems are a bit elusive and fairly complex," Burgess said. "It's a shame, but the public doesn't recognize how much the insurance commissioner touches their lives."
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