Martinez backer withdraws support

TALLAHASSEE – A prominent Washington lawyer who was White House counsel for former President Bush has withdrawn his support of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mel Martinez, citing the candidate’s past ties to trial lawyers and Democrats.

C. Boyden Gray agreed to raise money for Martinez last month. But he dropped those plans and will support former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum.

In a letter of explanation, released Monday by the McCollum campaign, Gray said Martinez would be an obstacle to stopping frivolous lawsuits because of his past ties to the trial bar.

“We simply do not need any more Republicans who oppose tort reform in the Senate,” Gray wrote in a letter to friends and supporters.

McCollum is trying to slow the momentum of Martinez, the former U.S. housing secretary who polls show is McCollum’s strongest threat to winning the GOP nomination. Martinez raised $1.7- million in the first quarter, snared Attorney General Charlie Crist as his campaign chairman last week and will fly around the state today with former GOP vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp.

Six others also are seeking the GOP Senate nomination, including Florida House Speaker Johnnie Byrd of Plant City.

A few weeks ago, Gray donated $1,000 to Martinez’s campaign. He also agreed to raise $5,000 and serve as a co-sponsor of an April 28 Washington fundraiser organized by Jane Abraham, wife of U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

Gray said the more he learned about Martinez’s past, the more his ties to lawyers concerned him.

“What bothers me about his record is that he’s gone out and opposed tort reform stuff, and he’s taken money from the trial lawyers,” Gray said in an interview. “That’s always been a sign in the Senate of people trimming their sails when it comes to key votes.”

Gray is viewed as a close ally of the Bush family, and Martinez often cites his close relationship with President George W. Bush on the campaign trail.

A partner in the Washington law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering, Gray also is co-chairman of Citizens for a Sound Economy, which blames “greedy trial lawyers” for runaway litigation.

“While I think Mel is a fine person,” Gray wrote, “I fundamentally disagree with his position on tort reform, and fear his candidacy would hamper our ability to present a unified message on this critical issue.”

Martinez’s spokeswoman downplayed Gray’s defection.

“This seems to me as a cheap political stunt on the part of a desperate political campaign,” said Jennifer Coxe.

Martinez supports limiting damage awards but does not support caps as low as $250,000 as supported by President Bush, among others. He favors a so-called “loser pays” provision that would force people who file baseless lawsuits to pay opponents’ legal costs.

A political group with ties to Florida doctors also has run radio ads linking Martinez to trial lawyers, a group synonymous with liberals to many Republicans.

The question is whether, in a time of war and terrorism concerns, tort reform is as important to Republican primary voters as McCollum thinks it is.

Martinez’s previous ties to the trial lawyers and Democratic candidates, mostly in the late 1980s when he was president of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, have been widely reported in Florida. So was his $20,000 donation to Alert ’88, a pro-trial lawyer political group that successfully blocked limits on lawsuit damages in Florida in 1988.

The Martinez campaign was assembling a list of Republicans who backed McCollum in his first Senate race in 2000 and who now support Martinez. Heading the list, Coxe said, is Crist, the newly minted chairman of Martinez’s campaign.

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