Gallagher: Impassioned by Experience

At 61, Tom Gallagher is the oldest candidate in the race for governor.TOM GALLAGHER, REPUBLICAN Impassioned By Experience


In his early years in Tallahassee, Tom Gallagher had about as high a profile as a state representative can get. For starters, he was a political oddity: the lone Republican in the Dade delegation, preaching lower taxes and less government in the pre-Reagan, pre-Bush (H.W., W. and Jeb) mid-1970s, although much of his voting record pegged him as a moderate. A good-looking bachelor, he also developed a reputation as a party-hearty ladies’ man.

Fast forward 32 years: Those expecting to find a smooth and debonair man-about-town when they meet the candidate are in for a surprise. Despite his long political career, Gallagher isn’t a facile speaker, and he sounds positively wonkish as he rattles off statistics about funding hurricane reinsurance, opines on the need for Developments of Regional Impact and brags about Florida’s AAA bond rating.

The good looks and a full head of hair – albeit grayer – still are there but, at 61, Gallagher is the oldest candidate in the race. He’s also the one with the most experience in Florida politics. He was a six-term representative and has been a member of the Florida Cabinet since 1988, when he was elected treasurer, insurance commissioner and fire marshal. He has also served as education commissioner and now is the state’s chief financial officer.

He’s married to the former Laura Wilson, with a 6-year-old son (he may be the oldest candidate, but he has the youngest child) and a house in northeast Tallahassee.

This campaign is Gallagher’s fourth bid for the governorship; he ran in 1982, 1986 and 1994. Politicos say he took one for the GOP team in 2000 when he bowed out of the U.S. Senate race to avoid a divisive primary in favor of Bill McCollum, who ultimately lost to Democrat Bill Nelson.

“That decision was my decision, and I’m very happy with it,” Gallagher said. “Moving to Washington, D.C., wasn’t something we wanted to do.”

This time, in his quest for the brass ring that is Florida’s political top spot, Gallagher appears to have taken a giant step rightward, articulating positions that place him firmly inside the conservative camp.

Marriage and family have changed his life, said Gallagher, but not what he has always believed.

“There are things we can do to keep our state strong and … keep it a place where people want to start a business and they want to raise a family.”

“I don’t think it changed my political philosophy; I think it made me more comfortable talking about it,” he said. “I used to be very reticent about getting my personal views and my public views mixed in regards to say, abortion, for example. Although my voting record was always a pro-life voting record, I’d say, ‘That’s an issue between a woman and her doctor.’ Now I think that’s an issue I feel strongly about, and I should be public about where I am.

“You can’t be a leader and have everybody agree with what you believe in. It’s just not going to happen,” he said. “But I think people have the right to know where you stand on issues so they can make their decision.”

Gallagher came to Florida from Delaware, where his father was active in Republican politics, in 1961 to attend the University of Miami. After service in the Army, he settled in Dade and became a businessman. He was defeated in his first run for state office, finally winning in 1974 in a fast-tracked special election to replace a state representative who had died.

At that time, “it was never my plan” to make a career of politics, Gallagher said, but he mentions several points of pride during his decades-long tenure in public office. Notable achievements he highlights include creation of the Florida Hurricane Catastrophic Fund following Hurricane Andrew in 1992, creation of a health-care insurance plan for children, and implementation of Gov. Jeb Bush’s A+ plan – including the enactment of the FCAT test, which issues letter grades for schools – during his tenure as education commissioner.

In this year’s gubernatorial primary, Gallagher faces an uphill primary battle against fellow Republican Charlie Crist, who has amassed more money, gathered high-powered endorsements and garnered higher numbers in early polls. And even though the Democratic challengers have considerably less name recognition and smaller war chests, Gallagher said he expects them to be “fully funded when the general election comes.”

Generally, Gallagher is bullish on the state he wants to serve as its chief executive.

“We’re the envy of the nation when it comes to our economic strength,” he said. “We’re sitting on a 3-percent unemployment rate and … people want to keep it that way. There are things we can do to keep our state strong and … keep it a place where people want to start a business and they want to raise a family and they still want to come and retire.” – Rosanne Dunkelberger

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