Trial lawyer Kevin C. Ambler finds his occupation to be a liability as he seeks a second term in the Florida House of Representatives.
By Francis X. Gilpin
He's a multimillionaire, lives in the Cheval Polo and Golf Club, and has a second home in Palm Springs. His 2004 voting record in the state Legislature has won him 100% approval ratings from Associated Industries of Florida and the National Federation of Independent Business.
For the stereotypical country-club Republican, what's not to like about state Rep. Kevin C. Ambler, R-Lutz?
Ambler, 43, is a trial lawyer.
That career path appears to be one reason why Ambler has the distinction of being the only incumbent in Hillsborough County's entire legislative delegation to draw a re-election challenge this year from within his own party.
"What we're hearing is Kevin needs to be more Republican and less lawyer," says Ambler campaign manager Jim Johnson. "He is being targeted because he's a lawyer."
Despite a generally conservative voting record, Ambler faces Carrollwood mortgage broker William H. "Bill" Bunkley in the Aug. 31 Republican primary.
House District 47, encompassing the northwest Hillsborough communities of Carrollwood, Citrus Park, Keystone, Northdale and Ambler's own Cheval neighborhood, was carved so exquisitely for a Republican in the last redistricting that Democrats are conceding the seat. The winner of the Ambler-Bunkley contest appears opposite a Libertarian on the November ballot.
Yet, in some Republican circles this year, carrying the Grand Old Party banner while listing plaintiff's trial attorney experience on a resume is politically hazardous for a candidate. Just ask Mel Martinez.
The former Orlando attorney, who once headed the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, quit George W. Bush's housing secretariat at presidential urging to come home and upgrade a weak GOP field seeking to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Miami Lakes. Senate primary rival Bill McCollum has been hammering Martinez for the trial lawyer association. (Being a trial lawyer is also an issue in the presidential election. See story on following page.)
In House District 47, Bunkley has been quite a bit subtler. The challenger didn't officially jump into the race until just before the July qualifying deadline. Bunkley, who lobbies for the Florida Baptist Convention at the state Capitol, has limited his availability to the news media. He didn't return GCBR's calls. Bunkley has no one-on-one debates scheduled with Ambler.
But Bunkley, 48, is hardly an unknown. He advertises his business, The Bunkley Group Inc., on bus stop benches around the district and is a regular talking head on local televised political chat shows. Bunkley achieved some notoriety in 2001 when he got Tampa police to evict anti-Bush demonstrators from a rally for the president at Legends Field, spring baseball home of the New York Yankees.
Political observers suspect Bunkley's strategy is to attract as little attention as possible to his bid to unseat Ambler.
By shunning publicity, Bunkley hopes to damp down voter turnout on primary day, so goes the theory. Democrats will be excluded from the decisive Aug. 31 vote for the District 47 seat. That all could exaggerate the influence of religious conservatives, Bunkley's political base, who are expected to show up at the polls that day in large numbers for their man.
Where did Ambler go wrong, in the eyes of Republican tort reformists and the local Christian Right?
Ambler is an ardent foe of capping attorney fees in medical malpractice litigation. Reflecting economic self-interest as well as adherence to free-market principles, Ambler says fee caps on the plaintiff's bar amount to unconstitutional price-fixing.
In March, Ambler and two other Republican lawyers who serve on the House Judiciary Committee defied Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City. They refused to hear a bill to limit an attorney's fees and share of damages in malpractice cases successfully prosecuted on contingency. The Florida Medical Association-backed measure has since morphed into a proposed constitutional amendment that voters will see in November.
The FMA has made such reform a top priority, hoping to drain malpractice lawyers of their lifeblood: legal fees and damage awards. It is not surprising that Ambler's overall voting record during his first term rated just 50% approval from the physicians.
FLAMPAC, the medical association's political action committee, has endorsed Bunkley.
The physician lobby pushed hard during numerous legislative sessions in 2003 for lawmakers to address a purported crisis in medical malpractice insurance. The crisis talk died down after the Senate called for sworn testimony from FMA Chief Executive Sandra Mortham and other medical and insurance industry lobbyists. Under oath, Mortham, a former Largo legislator, disavowed her prior statements about "frivolous lawsuits" causing insurance premiums to rise.
But Baptist lobbyist Bunkley may be more peeved about Ambler's stance on an anti-human cloning bill that came before the House last year. The legislation touched on stem cells, a hot-button issue for Christian fundamentalists. They believe harvesting stem cells from human embryos for therapeutic research violates the sanctity of human life.
The Human Cloning Prohibition Act, sponsored by Rep. Jim Kallinger, R-Winter Park, was amended by Rep. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, in April 2003 to relax a blanket ban on stem-cell research in Florida. Ambler voted with Sobel and a slim House majority of 60 other members who approved the amendment. The revised bill never came up for a final vote.
Johnson, Ambler's campaign manager, says the lawmaker will make no apology for supporting the Sobel amendment. The incumbent's brother underwent experimental cancer treatment before his death in the 1970s and Ambler won't deny those with chronic diseases the possible benefits of stem-cell research, according to Johnson.
The Florida Retail Federation is another lobby that could be gunning for Ambler.
Ambler sponsored legislation that would have prevented stores from selling gift certificates with expiration dates of shorter than five years. The bill, according to the retail federation, also would have made gift cards fully exchangeable for cash on demand. That would have created an incentive for counterfeiting, the federation says.
Merchants killed Ambler's bill in committee. But the federation predicted in a legislative wrap-up sent to members in May: "If Rep. Ambler returns to the 2005 House, this bill is certain to return with him."
Other business lobbies looked kinder on Ambler's performance.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce gave Ambler an 88 grade point average for the 2004 session, saying he did a "good job" for Florida business. The freshman lawmaker ran afoul of the chamber on only a few votes, such as a transportation appropriations bill and legislation to provide workers compensation insurance coverage to public sector first-responders such as emergency medical technicians, firefighters and police officers.
If Ambler is to beat back the Bunkley threat, he will have to continue to get financial support from fellow lawyers. They have been there for him so far.
Through June 30, law firms and lawyers have given a total of $75,578 to Ambler's first two campaigns for the Florida Legislature. That's almost 28% of all his cash contributions, according to a GCBR analysis of state campaign finance data.
Morgan, Colling & Gilbert PA, the renown Orlando-based personal injury specialist, has kicked in $1,500. The Florida Lawyers' Action Group trust, a PAC for the trial lawyers, has given $500.
KEVIN CHRISTOPHER AMBLER
Net worth: $5.2 million
2003 annual income: $417,724
WILLIAM HENRY BUNKLEY
Occupation: Mortgage broker
Net worth: $228,569
2003 annual income: $72,000