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Health at heart of Senate race

Don Sullivan and Dee Billings both see health care as an issue that will loom large when the Legislature meets next spring. Both want to be there.

Incumbent state Sen. Sullivan, 58, is an orthopedic surgeon in St. Petersburg. Billings, 52, works for Humana Health Care Plans in Tampa.

Both candidates say their medical backgrounds make them the best choice for the District 22 state Senate seat.

Their backgrounds in health care don't mean they agree on the issue.

Billings said she favors "affordable health care for all."

Sullivan doesn't go that far.

"Universal care? I'm not for universal care," he said.

Other differences are not so pronounced.

Billings said she favored the Health Securities Act that Gov. Lawton Chiles introduced this year. The plan would have provided health care for 800,000 uninsured Floridians.

Sullivan said he supported parts of the legislation. He said he would look favorably on a state plan to provide medical insurance for Floridians whose pre-existing health problems make them uninsurable. Also, he said, people who work in low-paying jobs that don't offer medical insurance should be covered by a state or federal program.

Sullivan said his background makes him an important player in any legislation that Florida adopts. Sullivan, a Republican from Seminole, is proud that a Democratic Senate president placed him on a committee last year to evaluate health care legislation.

Billings, a Palm Harbor Democrat, said she, not Sullivan, can better speak for the average Floridian about health care issues.

"I work with people who live on $300 a month," she said. "Their medical needs are so great."

She called Sullivan's interest in health care self-serving and said she would "come to the table with no set agenda."

Neither candidate favors new taxes.

Billings said she thinks the state can glean more from existing tax dollars by reducing waste through better management. Tax loopholes for special interests should be eliminated, she said. She did not identify the special interests.

Sullivan said the state might consider expanding its tax base.

"As our economy shifts towards the provision of services and with the increasing importance of world trade, we may need to . . . bring in new sources of revenue while lowering the tax rate of some of the more traditional sources," he said.

Although Sullivan has been in office two years, he has less of a political past than Billings.

"I didn't even know there was such a thing as a Republican Executive Committee when I decided to run," he said.

Billings, who lived in Arkansas most of her adult life, was vice president of the Democratic Central Committee in Wynne, Ark., for four years. She said she also worked on the campaigns of Arkansas Sens. Dale Bumpers and David Pryor and on President Clinton's gubernatorial campaign. Locally, she worked on Cheryl Knapp's unsuccessful attempt to oust U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis in 1992.

One issue that separates Sullivan and Billings is gun control.

"I'm still not comfortable with the restrictions of weapons legislation," Sullivan said. "It's not going to make a difference in the crime rate. Until someone can show me it makes a difference . . . "

Billings favors restricting the sale of military-style semiautomatic weapons.

"Our police don't even have them," she said.

Another issue they disagree on is public funding of political campaigns.

Billings favors it, saying that special interests would otherwise control the candidates they pay to put in office.

Sullivan is opposed.

"There are better ways for the state to spend its money," he said.


Don Sullivan, R-Seminole, and Dee Billings, a Palm Harbor Democrat, want to represent District 22 in the Florida Senate. Sullivan, left, is the incumbent. He was elected in 1992. Billings, right, is a first-time candidate. The district stretches along the Pinellas coast from Pass-a-Grille to Caladesi Island. The election is Nov. 8.