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Lewis recommended, but weakly

Florida is the only jurisdiction in the United States, if not the whole world, that elects the person who supervises its financial institutions. There is very little success in the recent record to commend this most odd aspect of Florida's unique Cabinet system. Thirty-nine state-chartered banks and savings and loans have failed since 1985, which puts this state in the same notorious league as California and Texas. The ESM and G.I.C. securities scams also happened on Comptroller Gerald Lewis' watch. If results in office were all that sealed the fate of incumbents, Lewis would shortly be out of work. Yet he is a prohibitive favorite to win re-election to an unprecedented fifth term. The reasons speak volumes as to what's wrong with electing a state Cabinet. There is no constituency for bill-paying and auditing, the comptroller's oldest historic functions. But the bankers, mortgage brokers and securities dealers have such a keen interest in the comptroller's ex officio role of banking commissioner that it is virtually impossible for any candidate to succeed against the one they are backing with their campaign contributions. For fear of the unknown _ or of an incumbent's vindictiveness _ the tendency of the banking community has been to keep even bad comptrollers in office.

Ironically, Lewis himself cracked the system in 1974, running against an incumbent who had been forced to invoke the Fifth Amendment before a federal grand jury. As a young reformer, Lewis promised to serve no more than two terms. He is now seeking his fifth. Then, he promised to take no campaign money from bankers and other people whom the comptroller regulates. Now, he takes all he can get. Lewis' bursting campaign treasury, since grown to more than $1.1-million, explains why he did not draw a plausible opponent. Chris Comstock, the Republican nominee by default, has received no encouragement or financial support from his party, which apparently prefers to let the governor's race drain its well.

Comstock, a 37-year old certified financial planner from St. Petersburg, has been a stock broker, credit union auditor and bank examiner, but these superficial qualifications for the job of comptroller are unsupported by any experience in lesser elected offices. He says all the right things about declining campaign money from regulated interests and letting the Legislature provide for an appointed banking commissioner, but there is nothing in the record to enable anyone to say with confidence that he could do better, or even as well, as Lewis.

Lewis, who contends he did the best that he could under the circumstances, has at least the advantage of bitter experience. He admits that subordinates abused his trust some years ago and claims to be the wiser for it. He has generally voted responsibly on the education and environmental issues that come before the Cabinet. Believing that he is the safer choice _ but with little enthusiasm _ we recommend his re-election.

Floridians dissatisfied with the poor choices in this race should admonish their legislators to treat the causes. State banking regulators, who exercise highly sensitive and technical functions, should be appointed, not elected. The official who appoints them _ logically, the governor _ should not be able to accept large contributions from any special interest.

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