- The Washington Times - Monday, July 12, 2010

This may be the year for conservatives to fight the “establishment,” but that certainly doesn’t mean that every right-leaning newcomer is preferable to long-standing conservatives. Conservative leaders make a big mistake if they don’t rally around just such a stalwart, the ever-reliable Bill McCollum, in his race for governor of Florida.

Mr. McCollum, the current attorney general and former 10-term congressman, is trying to fight off big-money hospital magnate Rick Scott, a latecomer both to this race and to Florida civic life in general. At the national level, the four-way U.S. Senate race in Florida clearly has shown more sex appeal - but the governorship of Florida probably will be more important for the national conservative cause. The governorship is crucial for congressional redistricting, for ensuring fair election procedures in the 2012 presidential race and for oversight of a state government that frequently serves as a flash point for national policy issues.

After first being elected to Congress in 1980, Mr. McCollum was not just vaguely conservative, but a real member of the conservative movement, compiling a 20-year rating of 89 from the American Conservative Union. He was excellent on taxes (national supply-side leader Steve Forbes has endorsed and actively campaigned with him), solid against government waste, strongly for free enterprise, an ace for gun rights and perfectly pro-life. But Mr. McCollum, an officer in the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps for 23 years, clearly made his biggest mark on issues of law, order and counter-terrorism, where he was perhaps the single most effective long-term leader in the House and authored four of the anti-crime provisions of the 1994 Contract with America.

For instance, Mr. McCollum was a prime mover behind federal truth-in-sentencing laws. He was a voice of sanity as a key member of both the Reagan-era Iran-Contra hearings and as one of the team handling the Clinton impeachment inquiry. His legislation helped end the abuse of endless habeas corpus appeals of the death penalty. And when Rep. Bob Livingston in 1993 introduced federal “three strikes” life-sentence legislation (the right sort of “three strikes,” aimed at particularly violent crimes, not mere shoplifting), Mr. McCollum was one of the first three House members to sign on as a sponsor and help push it into law.

As attorney general, Mr. McCollum has fought against encroachments from the big-money liberal plaintiffs’ bar. He sponsored and shepherded through the legislature a bill to limit and make transparent the contingency fees that outside lawyers get paid when they file suits on behalf of state taxpayers - thus, of course, leaving more for the taxpayers themselves. And, most important to conservatives nationwide, he organized and leads the 19-state coalition of attorneys general who are suing to have the horrendous mandates in Obamacare be adjudged unconstitutional.

With such a record, it is no wonder Mr. McCollum has been endorsed by conservative leaders such as former Gov. Jeb Bush and former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey and by almost the entire Florida Republican congressional and state legislative delegations.

With all that going for him, Mr. McCollum was supposed to be a shoo-in for the Republican nomination for governor and the favorite to beat a Democrat in the fall. He did not count on having Mr. Scott jump in the race and throw more than $21 million in just a couple of months into smearing him. Even in an age of hardball politics, the Scott ads have been so below the belt as to be the political equivalent of rape. One ad slammed Mr. McCollum’s pro-life credentials by saying he had accepted “thousands from lobbyists for Planned Parenthood.” So unfair was the charge that Politifact gave this ad a “Pants on Fire” rating. Why? Because the lobbyists in question gave just $1,000 in each of the two years of 1997 and 1998 to Mr. McCollum - two full years before they did any lobbying for Planned Parenthood. To tie Mr. McCollum to Planned Parenthood in this way is akin to blaming a corner grocery store for selling bubble gum to a teenager who three years later robs a bank.

As is now being amply discussed on Florida news pages, it is Mr. Scott who got rich in questionable ways. He accumulated most of his millions when he was the chief executive of the national Columbia/HCA hospital company. While he himself was never charged with criminality, the company ended up being forced to pay a record $1.7 billion - yes, billion - in fines for various forms of fraud, most of which occurred on his watch. Mr. Scott claimed to have been oblivious to the shenanigans - to which Nell Minow of the Corporate Library, a watchdog group, had this comment: “Being ignorant of all that doesn’t inspire confidence… It’s no better to be a schnook than a crook.”

Rick Scott became a minor conservative hero last year for bankrolling major efforts to fight Obamacare. But should that be enough, absent other major unsullied bona fides nationally or in Florida, to be given a leg up on somebody like Mr. McCollum with a quarter-century of dedicated, effective service to the cause?

Only for schnooks.

Quin Hillyer is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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