ST. PETERSBURG — His political credentials are impeccable, his community ties solid, his personal background seemingly skeleton-free.
But at a time when private insurance carriers seem to have become Florida's most formidable villains, City Council member Earnest Williams' source of income could be his biggest liability in his bid to replace Rep. Frank Peterman in the Legislature.
State Farm, the largest private insurance company in Florida, announced last week that it will stop writing homeowner policies, prompting some community leaders to wonder what role Williams, a longtime State Farm agent, would play in the Legislature.
Williams contends that his experience would serve as an asset in his fight to reform the state's insurance regulations, which drive up prices. But some argue that Williams' professional background has become a double-edged sword in the District 55 election.
"To me, the great uncertainty is how will people deal with what he does for a living?" said Karl Nurse, an active local Democrat who once ran against Williams for the state House seat. "He knows a lot about insurance and it is one of the biggest problems we have. In that respect, his experience is a good thing. On the other hand … he earns his living from that, so that makes you want to keep your eyes open, too."
The hasty District 55 election comes on the heels of Peterman's appointment as secretary of Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice. The primary election is March 25.
Three other Democrats are running against Williams: educator Charles McKenzie, civil rights lawyer Darryl Rouson and University of South Florida student Steven Lapinski. A Republican has not entered the race.
Williams would like to see the state do away with many insurance regulations to encourage a free market. "With the competition between the companies, you would see the rates being pushed down," he said.
He says that instead of expanding the state-owned Citizens Property Insurance, Florida should offer wind protection to its residents, thereby assuaging insurance companies' concerns about Florida's vulnerability to hurricanes. Insurance companies could then offer all other home protection, he said.
To his supporters, Williams is certainly capable of being a reformer.
"He truly knows all of the ins and outs of insurance," said former council member Rene Flowers, who has endorsed Williams. "He is someone who wants to bring people together."
Williams, a Florida State University graduate, has worked as an administrative assistant to the city's park director and a criminal justice planner for the Police Department.
More than two decades ago, he opened Earnest Williams' State Farm Insurance Agency downtown, allowing him to support his family while affording him time to lend a hand in the community, he said.
Williams has served on the boards of the nonprofits St. Petersburg Neighborhood Housing Services and Gulfcoast Jewish & Mental Health Services. He reinstituted citizen marches against drugs and served as a member of the Pinellas School Readiness Coalition and School Bi-Racial Committee.
In December 2000, he was appointed to the St. Petersburg council District 6 seat Peterman vacated when he was elected to the Legislature. He was elected two more times to the council, where he quickly earned a reputation as a number cruncher protective of the city's budget.
Like many of his opponents, Williams has a history of civil rights activism. He says he risked his life to help integrate lunch counters and Chipola Junior College during the 1960s in his hometown of Marianna, a small, diverse Panhandle city.
This is Williams' fourth try for the District 55 seat.
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or [email protected]