JACKSONVILLE — It has been a decade since former Gov. Jeb Bush joined forces with then-House Speaker John Thrasher to reduce taxes, legalize school vouchers and generally make life miserable for Florida’s mostly liberal trial lawyers.
Now, having capitalized on that success by earning millions as a high-powered lobbyist, Thrasher wants to return to the political arena, and Bush is the key. He stars in pro-Thrasher TV ads that blast the lawyers who are now aggressively trying to defeat Thrasher.
With no Democrats running, the Sept. 15 primary for a state Senate seat is winner-take-all where anything can happen because voter turnout is expected to be low. That means a short, intense campaign heavy on advertising.
The result is a titanic and very expensive clash of powerful forces, the Republican old guard vs. trial lawyers. The outcome could have implications in Florida for years.
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“John Thrasher had the courage to help me rein in frivolous lawsuits some lawyers depend on,” Bush says in the new ad, calling a sustained advertising attack on Thrasher’s integrity “wrong.”
Because of those attacks, Thrasher’s return to the Legislature is anything but assured. He’s one of four Republicans running for the Senate District 8 seat vacated by the death of Sen. Jim King on July 26.
The other candidates are Art Graham, a Jacksonville City Council member; Stan Jordan, a Duval County School Board member and former legislator; and Dan Quiggle, an anti-tax crusader and owner of a title company in Ponte Vedra Beach.
The dark horse contender is Quiggle, and some polls show him pulling away.
The battleground is an elongated vertical slice of Northeast Florida that stretches across five counties, anchored by the city of Jacksonville, from the Georgia border south to Daytona Beach. The solidly Republican district has a sizable military presence: John McCain got 60 percent of the presidential vote here in 2008.
This election will show the power of a Bush endorsement in a strongly Republican region. It is likewise a test of the influence of the trial bar, which has maintained its clout in Tallahassee in recent years largely by supporting moderate Republican senators like King and Ken Pruitt, of Port St. Lucie, who resigned his seat this summer.
While in office, Thrasher and Bush threatened to cost trial lawyers a lot of money by capping their fees and making it harder for them to sue businesses.
A Thrasher win would be bad news for trial lawyers because it would put the ex-speaker on the fast track to a leadership post in the Republican-controlled Senate, including as a possible future Senate president.
A Thrasher defeat would strengthen the trial bar’s clout and raise new questions about the value of a high-profile push from Bush.
The airwaves across Jacksonville are resounding with ads, most of them for or against Thrasher. One TV ad was paid for by Conservative Citizens for Justice, whose president, Tom Edwards, is the immediate past president of the Florida Justice Association, the lobbying arm of the trial bar.
The group’s ad notes that Thrasher was twice criticized — reprimanded once and fined once — by the Commission on Ethics for violating lobbying restrictions.
A second group, Stop Tax Waste Inc., is flogging Thrasher in direct-mail fliers for spending $5.8-million to remodel the House chamber when he was speaker. President T.J. Harrington said his goal is to show voters that Thrasher is not the fiscal conservative he claims to be.
The criticism over the refurbishing has been aired so often in the media that Thrasher felt compelled to bring it up and defend himself at a meeting with Fernandina Beach residents.
He said the renovations were long overdue to make the chamber accessible to the disabled. And he said no money was spent to improve the speaker’s office, as the advertisement claims.
“They’ve misrepresented, they’ve lied, and we’re going to fight back hard,” Thrasher told the group.
He’s getting help. The pro-Thrasher Committee for Responsible Representation has fired back with leaflets calling Thrasher’s attackers “ultra-liberal personal injury trial lawyers.”
A group backed by the Florida Retail Federation is airing radio ads praising Thrasher, a Vietnam War veteran, as a local hero and conservative icon “fighting liberal interests.” The Florida Chamber of Commerce’s political group is running TV ads that support Thrasher by denigrating “greedy trial lawyers” in league with “illegal aliens.”
The two other candidates both say they have the potential to ruin Thrasher’s dream of a return to Tallahassee.
Jordan, 71, is a low-key politician and retired U.S. Army colonel and restaurant owner who says his deep ties to Jacksonville will overcome Thrasher’s money.
He hosted a hot dog roast at an auto body shop on a week night that brought out nearly 200 people.
“This is the power brokers versus the people,” said Jordan, who championed military issues as a state House member from 2000 to 2008, when term limits force him out and he was elected to return to the county School Board.
Quiggle, 40, is a member of a group called Americans for Prosperity and he worked for a group affiliated with former President Ronald Reagan. A Quiggle flier, paid for by the pro-Quiggle Families for New Leadership, shows the candidate in two photos with the former president, and Quiggle is campaigning aggressively in opposition to President Obama’s health care plan. He is also active in anti-tax tea party rallies and social networking.
But the race is still largely about Thrasher, a 65-year-old lawyer who last week listed a net worth of $7,475,678.
After leaving the House in 2000, he joined the powerhouse lobbying firm Southern Strategy Group.
They parted ways last spring, when Thrasher plotted a return to the Legislature.
Although Thrasher went to high school in Jacksonville, his political career is closely tethered to Clay County to the southwest, which is outside the district. Thrasher bought a condo in St. Augustine, which is in the district, and is selling his home in Orange Park.
When a woman at the rally in Fernandina Beach questioned Thrasher about his residency, he sounded defensive.
“My driver’s license says St. Augustine and my voter registration says St. Augustine,” Thrasher said. “I don’t know what else I can do.”