Low profile they may be, but these races shape Florida, too

Published: Saturday, January 7, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 7, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Go ahead, try to name the five candidates for attorney general.
Now try to name the three major candidates for chief financial officer, or, better yet, describe what the CFO does.
Unless politics is your passion, there's a good chance those challenges drew a blank.
Don't feel bad. The race to replace Gov. Jeb Bush, who must leave office because of term limits, and Republican U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris' attempt to oust Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson from office have grabbed most of the headlines leading into the 2006 election.
Further down the ballot, though, are some races well worth watching that could have a profound effect on the state.
Four Republicans are running to replace Attorney General Charlie Crist, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor. They are former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, state Rep. Joe Negron of Stuart, state Sen. Burt Saunders of Naples and state Rep. Everett Rice of Pinellas County. The lone Democrat is state Sen. Skip Campbell of Broward County.
Running to replace CFO Tom Gallagher, another Republican gubernatorial candidate, are Senate President Tom Lee and state Rep. Randy Johnson on the Republican side and Democrat Alex Sink, the former president of Bank of America's Florida operations.
The jobs are important. The attorney general serves as the state's top lawyer, offering opinions to officials and government agencies on state laws, investigating and seeking civil prosecution of people and companies that violate antitrust or racketeering laws. The attorney general's office also helps crime victims and works with other law enforcement agencies on statewide criminal issues.
During a restructuring of the Cabinet completed in 2002, the treasurer and comptroller positions were combined to create the chief financial officer. The CFO has a wide range of responsibilities, from overseeing cemeteries to keeping a watch on the state's spending. The CFO reviews state contracts, licenses insurance agents, serves as state fire marshal and oversees worker compensation issues.
While the CFO doesn't set homeowners insurance rates, the CFO does serve as a citizens advocate on insurance issues and investigates insurance fraud.
"The CFO is probably the second most powerful position in the state of Florida," said Geoffrey Becker, a Republican strategist whose company, Vanatage Point Strategies, is analyzing polling data on the Cabinet races. "They are the watchdog of all government spending."
Each also serves on the Cabinet, which makes decisions with the governor on issues like land purchases and deciding whether felons should have voting rights restored or be allowed to own a gun once they've served their sentences. The Cabinet also oversees several state departments, including the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, the Department of Revenue and the Office of Insurance Regulation.
If Democrats were to win the governor's office, they would need only one Cabinet seat to control Cabinet decisions. In a 2-2 vote, the side the governor takes prevails.
Politically, the positions are also important. There are only six statewide elected offices - the governor, three Cabinet members and two U.S. Senate seats. The seat holders tend to have a strong say in the direction of the party and are seen as potential candidates for governor or U.S. Senate.
"The position of CFO seems like an administrative position to most observers, but in reality, the CFO as a member of the Cabinet and an elected official of statewide influence will swing a very large stick in framing a political agenda in one of the largest states in America," said Lee.
That's why voters can expect intense primaries and a competitive general election. Democrats, who only hold one statewide office, see the two open seats as an opportunity to again become a party of significance in Tallahassee.
"These are positions that can bring about a government that people want to be proud of and that can be efficient and effective," said Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Thurman.
Other than McCollum, who has run for U.S. Senate twice, none of the attorney general and CFO candidates have run statewide. His primary opponents are lesser known state lawmakers. Rice is a retired Pinellas County sheriff, Negron chairs the House Fiscal Council and Saunders is a former attorney for Collier County.
"I'm being better received than I've ever been received in any race that I've run," McCollum said, adding that his experience in Congress translates well to the position. "I know the issues that the attorney general largely faces in our state - consumer fraud, sexual predators, gang issues, crime issues and terrorism."
While McCollum is better known, Becker says polling shows that more than a third of Republicans believe he should give another candidate a chance at running for statewide office.
Negron has so far shown he will have resources to run a solid campaign, raising $1 million through the end of September - far more than Rice and Saunders.
"People respect what Bill McCollum accomplished in Washington for 20 years, but he has been out of politics and running for the U.S. Senate for the last six years," said Negron. "I've been in Tallahassee the last six years cutting taxes, protecting consumers and trying to improve public safety."
Campbell is a Broward County lawyer who says he has tried more than 1,000 cases. He is expected to be the only major Democrat in the race.
In the CFO race, Lee is probably the best known candidate. As Senate president, he has championed the cause of ethics in lobbying - an issue that should play well with voters. Johnson has been critical of Lee during a debate over recently approved slot machines for Broward County pari-mutuel facilities, saying Lee took campaign money from the gambling industry and took a softer approach to regulating the machines.
Sink has connections around the state from her previous life as a banker and has seen a statewide campaign from the inside as the wife of 2002 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Bill McBride. She is calling for more accountability in state contracts with private service providers. She is also highlighting her experience with money management.
"I'm very fiscally conservative and I want to make sure the state's money is invested properly," she said.
Most of the Cabinet candidates acknowledge that they have a tougher job bringing attention to the races, given the top of the ticket campaigns.
"It's a down ticket race and people aren't paying attention to it," said Rice. "The attorney general race is always overshadowed by the others."

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