GOP candidates, Democrats use trial lawyer tag against Martinez

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As hard as Mel Martinez tries to highlight his experience on President Bush’s Cabinet and as Orange County chairman, his opponents in the race for U.S. Senate keep pointing out another line on his resume: trial lawyer.

Now that Democrat John Edwards – also a trial lawyer – is on the presidential ticket, Democrats too are making note of Martinez’s experience. They say Republicans who criticize Edwards’ career choice are hypocrites.

It’s an odd situation that bonds natural foes together against one man who many believe was recruited by the president to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Bob Graham.

Every time a Republican casts a stone at Edwards over his career, a Democrat picks it up and throws it back at Martinez, a former president of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers who resigned as Housing and Urban Development secretary to run for Senate.

Other Republicans seeking the seat – former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, millionaire businessman Doug Gallagher and state House speaker Johnnie Byrd – are attacking Martinez because he was a trial lawyer.

Martinez says the attacks are unfair.

“Like any political attack, they always tend to not explain, but confuse,” he said. “They’re twisting my record. Edwards and I had a common profession. So did Bill McCollum and so did Johnnie Byrd. We were lawyers. That’s where those similarities end.”

Martinez said what goes ignored is that he gave free legal service to the poor, he was the first bilingual lawyer in Orlando and that he, too, agrees something should be done to reign in abusive lawsuits.

“I was someone who did good work in an honorable way, representing people instead of insurance companies, like some of the people who attack me did,” Martinez said. “I don’t walk away from my past profession. Quite the contrary. I’m very proud of what I did.”

The reason it’s even an issue is because President Bush, like his brother Gov. Jeb Bush, has tried to put limits on lawsuit damages in medical malpractice cases, arguing that greedy personal injury lawyers are driving up the cost of health care.

The Florida Legislature last year passed a bill that sets a $500,000 cap in noneconomic damages, such as for pain and suffering, in most malpractice claims. That was twice the amount Jeb Bush sought. His brother has also sought a $250,000 limit. While it passed the Senate, it didn’t get through the House.

Martinez supports a $500,000 cap. He also said he abhors some of the same things other people associate with personal injury attorneys, such abusive lawsuits and advertising to attract the injured.

“Excesses are wrong no matter where they occur and certainly in the tort system there’s been excesses, and where they are, they need to be curtailed,” he said. “I don’t view myself in a way that is in any way inconsistent with representing the best interests of the Republican Party in Florida.”

No matter what he says, though, the attacks will continue, particularly now that Edwards is Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s running mate.

Republicans nationwide are criticizing Edwards because he made millions as a trial lawyer. Vice President Dick Cheney, the Republican National Committee and a whole host of others have used it as a point of attack.

Among them is former Republican vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp. Two months after flying around Florida to help the Martinez campaign, he talked to media personality Sean Hannity about Edwards.

“Another trial lawyer? Ugh!” Kemp said. “If you want to know the cost of insurance, the cost of health care, the cost of an airplane flight, ask the trial lawyers of America.”

When asked about Martinez, Kemp had a different opinion.

“I don’t have anything against trial lawyers, that’s an honorable profession,” Kemp told The Associated Press. “The difference between Mel Martinez as a trial lawyer and John Edwards as a trial lawyer: Mel is for tort reform and John is the leading opponent of any tort reform in America.”

Alan Stonecipher, who represents the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Florida, has sent out several e-mails to the news media pointing out the conflict, suggesting that the blood must run out of Martinez’s face every time a prominent Republican brings up the trial lawyer issue.

“It’s very ironic that Cheney and the White House make a big deal about Edwards being a trial lawyer but they hand-pick Martinez to run down here,” he said. “It’s a fun way to expose a conflict in what the Republicans are saying and what they’re doing. It’s just pointing out that the White House apparently has themselves in a bind on this issue.”

Byrd agrees it’s a conflict.

“The Republican voters will see through this hypocrisy,” he said of White House support for Martinez and opposition to trial lawyers.

McCollum first brought up the subject with a video he posted on his Web site in February, showing Edwards and Martinez side-by-side as an announcer says, “Two liberal trial lawyers. Both wrong. So wrong. So often.”

Martinez also pointed out a little hypocrisy: When McCollum ran for Senate in 2000, he asked for and received Martinez’s endorsement. McCollum lost to Democrat Bill Nelson.

“I don’t remember four years ago, having anyone say to me ‘Oh gee, you’re a trial lawyer, so maybe I don’t want your endorsement,'” Martinez said. “I remember people saying to me, ‘Would you please endorse me, it would mean so much to me to have the chairman of Orange County endorse my Senate campaign.'”

“To have that situation turned around so that I’m some greedy trial lawyer, it hurts,” he added. “I expect better of life than that, but that’s life. That’s politics.”

McCollum spokeswoman Shannon Gravitte responded, “It’s fair game in politics … When you’re running a campaign, voters need to know the differences between the candidates so they can make educated choices.”

Political observers and many Florida Republicans, from Gov. Bush on down, say primary voters will see through trial lawyer comparisons between Martinez and Edwards.

Many GOP voters will look at other issues, including his relationship with President Bush, in deciding whether to support Martinez, said Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political science professor.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily lethal, that he can’t win because of it, but he has to overcome it,” Jewett said. “Some people will not vote for him solely on that issue.”