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Former Democratic House Speaker Challenges GOP Incumbent in New Coastal District 89

9/22/2012
By: Jane Musgrave
Palm Beach Post

In 1990, George Bush the first was president, Driving Miss Daisy won the Oscar for Best Picture, The Simpsons was the new rage on TV, and Tom Gustafson was capping a 14-year career as a state lawmaker by wrapping up a two-year stint as House speaker before largely disappearing from public life.

At the same time, Bill Hager was moving to Boca Raton from his native Iowa to head NCCI, a 900-employee nonprofit that collects workers compensation and employee injury stats and makes insurance rate recommendations to various state governments, including Florida.

Twenty-two years later, the two 60-something lawyers, who took far different paths into political life and spout far different views, are facing off against each other. Both want to serve in the Florida House, representing 113,000 Palm Beach County residents who live in the newly created District 89, which hugs the coast from Boca Raton to Singer Island and is fairly evenly split between among Republicans (37 percent), Democrats (36 percent) and independents (27 percent).

The contest between the one-time Democratic powerhouse and the one-term Republican incumbent got off to a slow start. Gustafson, who has lived in Wellington since 2002, was tapped by Democrats on July 31 to replace Pamela Goodman, who had withdrawn because of her husband’s ill health.

Gustafson, who recently rented a house in Lake Worth so he can claim residency in the district, seems intent on making up for lost time. His late start put him at a decided money disadvantage — he has raised about $50,000 to Hager’s roughly $177,000 at last report. So, he is lobbing verbal missiles.

Branding his opponent as a shill for the insurance industry and a GOP puppet, he said the legislature needs an infusion of new ideas. Although many of his ideas smack of measures he championed decades ago, he insists he is the man to do it.

“Bill Hager hasn’t had an original thought in his mind since he left Iowa,” said Gustafson, who spent the past decade in academia.

Hager, who served two terms on the Boca Raton City Council before being elected to the state House in 2010, scoffs at Gustafson’s jabs. His background and expertise is varied. He has worked as a math teacher, chief of staff for an Iowa congressman and as both a private and government attorney.

Even his work in insurance, he said, is broad-based. As insurance commissioner for his home state, he was a regulator. He said he’s also been an insurance executive and now serves as a consultant to the industry. He also testifies in lawsuits, sometimes for insurers but, he said, just as often for the injured.

Gustafson points to Hager’s opposition to what are known as claims bills as evidence of his foe’s pro-insurer bent. If someone is injured by the wrongdoing of the state or a county or municipal agency, the most he or she can collect is $200,000. The only way to lift the cap is if the legislature passes a claims bill. Dozens are filed each year.

This year, the cause célèbre was the legislature’s long-awaited decision to compensate a Sunrise man who was brain-damaged when his car was struck in 1998 by a speeding Broward County sheriff’s deputy. It finally agreed to pay Eric Brody $10.75 million of the $30 million a jury awarded him in 2006. Hager, as usual, voted no.

“He is unwilling to vote for any claims bill no matter how meritorious, much like an insurance company doesn’t like paying claims,” Gustafson said.

Hager said he opposes claims bills because lobbyists cash in. “It’s a sleazy process,” he said. “Being from Iowa, I don’t like sleazy government.” This year he proposed a measure to bar lobbyists from getting paid to solicit support for claims bills. It died in committee.

A bigger insurance issue for most residents is the status of Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state-run insurer of last resort. It has come under attack recently for driving up premiums for thousands of property owners by rejecting discounts for strengthening homes.

To both, the recent flap underscores critical problems with the insurer, which has 1.5 million customers, including about 140,000 in Palm Beach County. Hager calls Citizens “a monster.” Pointing out that it covers $500 billion in property but has only $7 billion in the bank, he said, “We need to reduce the size of this monster so when the big blow comes, Citizens can pay the claims.”

Gustafson counters that Citizens needs reform, not reduction. An April report by the Florida insurance consumer advocate said many private companies have far less in reserves than Citizens and would be unable to cover losses from a small, much less a major, storm. Gustafson advocates spreading the risk instead of limiting Citizens’ reach to high-risk coastal customers. “You can’t say the free market is going to take care of it, because they didn’t do it in Andrew,” he said. A strong homegrown company that is focused on making buildings hurricane-resistant is a far better option than relying on out-of-state, profit-driven companies, he said.

The two also differ about how to create jobs to bolster the state’s sagging economy. Hager wants to eliminate corporate taxes and reduce regulations to lure new businesses. Gustafson proposes using existing state revenue, such as utility taxes, to float bond issues to build roads, schools and research institutes. Construction will create jobs and the facilities will position Floridians for future employment.

Hager dismissed Gustafson’s plan to borrow money as “total nonsense.” He said it is typical of Gustafson’s approach as a “tax-and-spend” liberal.

While in the legislature, Gustafson earned the nickname “Whirlybird” for his frenetic style. His penchant for talking irritated lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Today, he still enjoys lecturing. Ideas flow nonstop.

But, unlike his past tour in Tallahassee, he said he doesn’t want a leadership post. That, he said, frees him from political shackles.“The Republicans seem to me to have no heart. We can’t sit there while Rome burns,” he said. “As for Democrats, I want them to show more intelligence. They need to get their heads out of the sand.”