Tuesday, November 20, 2018
Hernando News

A millionaire and a missionary: Two doctors vie for state House seat

Ralph Massullo, the incumbent in the state House of Representatives 34th District race, decided to run for re-election "for the same reason I sought this position in the first place" — to make a difference through service.

The Lecanto Republican, elected unopposed two years ago, faces a challenge from Democrat Paul Reinhardt of Beverly Hills, a newcomer to politics.

Reinhardt outlined his motivation in some of the same terms: "I believe one person has to stand up and make a difference, and we have things going on in the 34th District that require one person to stand up and challenge the incumbent."

Both men are 57, and both are doctors. But the similarities mostly end there, especially regarding their finances.

Massullo used his medical degree to found the Suncoast Dermatology and Skin Surgery Center in Lecanto, where he practices when not in Tallahassee. That helped him garner a net worth of $36.4 million, according to financial filings, which surpasses the $32.8 million figure that last year made him the wealthiest legislator in Florida.

Reinhardt used his degree to perform missionary work in Haiti and Mexico and later to care full-time for his terminally ill parents. He is unemployed and reported a net worth of $357,219.

Campaign finance records further highlight the contrast.

As of Oct. 1, eight people had donated a total of $1,275 to Reinhardt's campaign. He loaned himself another $1,960.

As of the same date, a long list of contributors had given Massullo a total of $57,550. They were mostly industrial companies, political action committees and health care professionals. About 16 percent of the funds — $9,000 — came from pharmaceutical firms.

Massullo had spent more than $15,865 as of that date, compared to Reinhardt's $2,360.

• • •

The incumbent said his campaign is focused on three priorities: education reform, health care and bringing cleaner industry to the community.

Students should have more pathways after high school than only college, he said, explaining that he would like to improve vocational trade training.

"I'd like to see our workforce better prepared," he said.

His greatest concern with health care is the high cost of pharmaceutical drugs. He wants to rein in those costs.

Asked about the possible discrepancy between that goal and his accepting funds from pharmaceutical companies, the legislator cited the control that so-called "pharmacy benefit management groups" have over the industry. They act as middlemen between manufacturers and insurance companies and have spurred debate nationally over how much they are to blame for rising drug prices.

Massullo believes the management groups, not pharmaceutical companies, are a greater cause for concern and said they need to play fairly.

"It's important for us to try to get [a grasp] on why these medications are increasing," he said.

Massullo also said keeping water clean is important and voiced support for septic-to-sewer conversion programs that are praised in some parts of Florida for helping reduce pollution in waterways.

What has been Massullo's biggest accomplishment in office? He cites passage of the Legislature's bill allowing universities to study the industrial uses of hemp, which he sponsored.

• • •

Reinhardt listed his priorities as: nurturing small businesses, especially in the technology field; fostering more citizen input on state issues; and expanding health care access.

"My opponent is just concerned with large businesses," he said, explaining that he would rather partner with start-up companies to rehab and fill vacant strip malls.

Reinhardt continued: "He's backed by the mining industry that's causing these problems," arguing that Massullo is connected with businesses that bring environmental harm.

Cemex Construction Materials Florida, the company whose plans to expand mining operations in Hernando County attracted resident opposition this year, donated $500 to Massullo's campaign last October.

Reinhardt's positions on health care differ from Massullo's.

The challenger believes people should begin receiving Medicare benefits at age 50 and that too many people lack health insurance. He also proposes requiring graduates of state medical schools to serve a year working at state health departments and federally qualified health centers. That would address a shortage he sees in primary care, he argued.

Reinhardt called himself a "conservative Democrat." He is pro-life. And he shared documents showing he has an "A" rating and endorsement from the National Rifle Association, and a "pro-gun" rating and endorsement from the Unified Sportsmen of Florida.

"I feel that they need a voice," he said of moderate and conservative Democrats. He views himself as a "common-sense Democrat."

"We seem to have lost moderation in today's politics," he said.

• • •

Because Massullo ran unopposed in 2016, Reinhardt said, voters had no alternative at the polls.

"He's not being re-elected," the challenger said. "This is his first campaign."

Massullo expressed admiration for the contest.

"I think it's a good experience," he said. "I can empathize with my opponent." He believes that debating their beliefs is healthy.

"If we can do that in a civil way," Massullo said, "we benefit."

Polls open at 7 a.m. on Election Day and close at 7 p.m. The 34th District covers the northern half of Hernando County, all of Citrus County and parts of Levy, Marion and Sumter counties.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Contact Justin Trombly at [email protected] Follow @JustinTrombly.

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