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TCPalm - Laurence Reisman: Don’t be surprised to see mud fly in race to replace Mayfield

Here we go again.

That's all I could think of when I heard Lange Sykes criticize trial lawyers at a recent forum featuring candidates seeking the Florida House District 54 seat held by term-limited Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach.

I hadn't thought much of tort or medical malpractice reform in about six years, the last time Erin Grall, a trial lawyer, ran for a state House office. It seems all's been quiet on the legal reform front since 2014, when Florida Gov. Rick Scott pronounced victory in his 2010 "Let's get to work" campaign to create 700,000 jobs in seven years. At the end of 2015, that number hovered around 1 million.

But candidate Sykes brought up tort reform several times recently at the Republican Club of Indian River County.

"Taxes, fees, burdensome regulations and plaintiffs' attorneys are the four biggest jobs killers in America today," the Vero Beach business owner said, noting that in Tallahassee, he wants to implement "substantive lawsuit reform."

Later in the forum, when asked whether to expand Medicaid to cover uninsured Floridians, he said no, then said there were three big issues in the state: health care, jobs and immigration.

"The common thing hurting these three important issues, oddly enough, are plaintiff attorneys," Sykes said. "What they do is they sue doctors and they sue businesses."

To me, Sykes, 30, a first-time candidate, was picking on Grall, the front-runner among his three opponents in the race.

In 2010, Grall, then 32, a Vero Beach native, ran against three middle-aged men from Brevard County in a House district centered there. Polls showed her up 6 points against Tom Goodson late in the campaign, she said. Then the Florida Chamber of Commerce Alliance, funded largely by U.S. Sugar Corp., and Disney, unleashed a series of nasty attacks — via mail, on TV and radio — on her and her profession.

Despite the attacks, Grall won 65 percent of the vote in Indian River County. She lost overall by only 280 votes to Goodson, who received 31 percent of the vote.

The attacks were so bad, Jim Davis, executive vice president of Treasure and Space Coast radio, stopped running the commercials, and fired off a strongly worded letter to the Florida Chamber.

Penny Chandler, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Indian River County, canceled her agency's membership in the state chamber.

"Having been in a chamber career for nearly 30 years, I feel that the ads are a disgrace to my profession and the standards I have personally held high for decades," she said at the time.

Sykes told me the other day he won't stoop to mudslinging.

"I'm running a positive campaign and talking about my individual merits," said Sykes, whose company, Riomar, sells a line of casual shoes for $295 a pair.

For this community's sake — District 54 encompasses all of Indian River County — I hope Sykes and his supporters avoid negativity. But I'm not optimistic.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce Alliance this year has raised $858,000, far more than in 2010. That includes $330,000 from Florida Power & Light Co., and $80,000 from U.S. Sugar. Companies associated with Disney have donated almost $7,000 to Sykes' campaign. The Doctors Company Florida political action committee, which supports candidates who pledge to reform malpractice laws, gave his campaign $1,000.

Disney and the doctors committee have donated $225,000 to the Florida Justice Reform Committee, which gave Sykes $1,000.

In other words, there is plenty of money floating around to slime Grall even if Sykes does not do it directly. Special-interest committees are nasty and have little accountability.

"There's nothing like watching the first TV ad run against you," said Grall, noting she expects Big Business to be after her again.

"I believe in personal responsibility — that's at the core of my profession," Grall said, "and anyone that understood that would have a hard time getting up and tearing that down."

The good news — if Sykes allows his supporters to attack Grall — is that negative mailers and TV and radio spots traditionally have not worked in Indian River County.

May that be a lesson to local candidates and faceless, out-of-county committees.


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