Interest groups switch sides in Florida state House race

In southeast Hillsborough political contest, trial lawyers are lining up with the Republican.
Democrat Andrew Learned is facing a challenge from Republican Danny Alvarez in the District 69 contest to represent southeast Hillsborough.
Democrat Andrew Learned is facing a challenge from Republican Danny Alvarez in the District 69 contest to represent southeast Hillsborough. [ Handout ]
Published Sept. 17, 2022

In a reversal of the typical leanings of two powerful Florida interest groups, the state’s trial lawyers are lining up with Republican challenger Danny Alvarez, while many business interests are backing Democratic incumbent Andrew Learned, in a key southeast Hillsborough state House race.

The reason: Learned, a moderate Democrat and business owner, has sided with business interests on issues including litigation reform, which he said is crucial to restoring stability in the state’s home insurance market.

In 2021, Learned wrote to constituents, “I broke with the majority of my own party” in voting for a bill that tightened regulations on contractors performing insurance-covered roof repairs under a procedure called “assignment of benefits.”

Insurers say the procedure, in which a homeowner grants a contractor the right to collect or sue for the insurance benefits, particularly roof repairs, has driven a flood of litigation that is driving them out of the market.

Learned said insurance claims in Florida are 10 times as likely to result in litigation as they are nationwide, and that lawyers, not homeowners, get most of the money spent on the litigation.

Alvarez couldn’t be reached for comment after repeated phone messages last week.

But trial attorneys say such “tort reforms” are depriving homeowners of their right to a day in court when insurers shortchange or stonewall them on repair costs after storms and catastrophes.

Hillsborough attorney Clif Curry of trial lawyers’ Florida Justice Association said Learned “has repeatedly voted against legislation that would protect consumers and hold businesses accountable” in other areas as well as insurance, and consistently chooses “protecting business interests” over consumers. Curry is also active in Republican political circles in east Hillsborough.

Alvarez, himself a lawyer, has received a raft of contributions from other lawyers and law firms, including the political arm of the Justice Association.

Learned, meanwhile, shows contributions from GOP-leaning business interests including Publix, insurance companies and business lobbying group Associated Industries.

Learned leads in campaign financing, with more than $300,000 cash in his campaign account and an independent committee, to around $130,000 for Alvarez.

The newly redrawn District 69 leans slightly Republican and has a small Republican voter registration plurality, but constitutes a beachhead Democrats have held through two elections in conservative east Hillsborough. They want to keep it, and Republicans want it back — a recipe for a hard-fought race.