Group Running Negative Ads Denies Link to Trial Bar
The organization behind a new television spot blasting Republican John Thrasher in the upcomming State Senate special election has denied being a front group for the trial lawyer lobby, whose strength is threatened in that chamber.
T. J. Harrington, president of Stop Tax Waste Inc., would say only that conservative-leaning citizens have joined together under the group’s umbrella to stop Thrasher, a former House speaker and lobbyist for the Florida Medical Association, which annually duels with the trial bar over a wide range of issues.
“I can’t disclose the names of our donors,” Harrington said. “But we’ve been taking contributions from anyone who feels that same way we do. There might be a few names of trial lawyers involved. But it’s a well-rounded group.”
The television spot, which began airing Wednesday on Jacksonville TV stations, attacks Thrasher for his supposed free-spending of taxpayer money during his 1998-2000 term as House speaker, which included the redesign and redecorating of the House chambers. A web site www.thrasherfacts.com also accuses Thrasher of “wasting our tax dollars by the millions.”
The TV spot began airing within two days of former Rep. Stan Jordan, a Jacksonville Republican, getting into the race against Thrasher and three other Republicans, Art Graham, Robert Allen Jones, and Joshua Larose. Harrington, though, insisted the organization was not backing any candidate.
“We’re just honing in on the issue of wasteful spending,” said Harrington, a political consultant and former aid to Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville.
Thrasher, who began running his own TV spots Thursday, was quick to condemn Stop Tax Waste’s ad as a shot from trial lawyers, whose political arm is Florida Justice PAC. Stop Tax Waste is organized as a 527 organization, named after a section of the federal tax code. Such 527s, known in Florida as electioneering communication organizations, have been largely unregulated since a federal court earlier this year declared unconstitutional a state requirement that they report donations and register with the Secretary of State.
“The trial lawyers and personal injury lawyers are trying to attack me,” Thrasher said about the TV spot. “But I think the voters will see through that.”
The special election primary to fill the seat vacated by the late Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, is scheduled for Sept. 15. There are no Democrats running yet, but a general election would be held Oct. 6. Jordan said he is stepping down from his seat on the Duval County School Board on Oct. 6.
Although Republican operatives unalligned with the candidates told the News Service of Florida that trial lawyers purportedly have promised Jordan several hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions and media buys, the candidate denied that such discussions took place.
“No, that’s not correct,” said Jordan, who served in the state House from 2000 through 2008. “I think there’s a lot being said, because there’s a lot of jockeying going on. But I got in this race because I know this community and the people know me.”
The Florida Justice Association, the trial bar group, declined further comment about the race to the News Service of Florida. The Justice Association has traditionally relied on a powerful bloc of supporters in the Senate, but is losing several of its staunchest defenders to term limits. Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, was recently replaced by former Rep. Joe Negron in a special election, and a Thrasher victory could signal a second loss before the year is out.
Next fall, usually reliable trial bar backers, Sens. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, and Durell Peaden, R-Crestview, also will leave because of term limits.
Thrasher opened his campaign in May for what was going to be a 2010 open Senate seat, with King facing term limits. King’s recent death, however, accelerated the election schedule.
But in just over a month of fund-raising, Thrasher collected $274,000 by the June 30 reporting period. Former Rep. Aaron Bean, then seen as Thrasher’s toughest rival, had raised $240,000, but has since quit the race.
In addition to being a former FMA lobbyist, Thrasher also was speaker in 1999 when sweeping civil justice reforms were overwhelmingly approved by the Legislature despite opposition from the trial bar. Jordan was supported by trial attorneys when he first declared his candidacy in 2000, but has not always proved a reliable vote for them.
He cast a majority vote in 2006 when the business community successfully got the Legislature to okay restrictions on lawsuits that often targeted deep-pocket companies. And he also generally sided with FMA positions in 2003 when medical malpractice limits were approved in another setback for trial lawyers.
“I’m not a lapdog or a yes-man for anybody,” Jordan said. “If they support me, it’s only an investment in good government.”