Sheriff Takes Lead in Florida Politics; Rutherford Becomes Point Man on Police Issues for Legislative Session

Article excerpt

Byline: Matt Dixon

TALLAHASSEE | With Friendship Fountain and the Main Street bridge at his back, Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford talked about why Florida needed to reform its no-fault automobile insurance coverage, known as personal injury protection.

"Accident fraud is a billion-dollar problem," Rutherford said during a 30-second television commercial that has run across the state. "It's increasing auto insurance premiums for all of us."

PIP was one of this year's biggest slugfests in this year's session, and lawmakers did not pass legislation until the final hours. Rutherford cut the ad at the request of the Florida Sheriffs Association, which voted him their legislative chairman this session.

The position made him the point man for the association on PIP and many other of the group's legislative priorities.

"I like the process actually. I believe as sheriff ... good government is my responsibility," Rutherford said. "The Legislature can create good government or bad government."

Some of the association's biggest issues - opposing mega casinos in South Florida, minimizing mental health cuts and cracking down on metal theft - were successful. Others - funding a database of every Florida pawnshop item, a bill banning texting while driving and clarifying the legality of Internet cafes - were not.

Frank Messersmtith, the association's top lobbyist, said Rutherford did a "great job" and devoted much of his time trolling the halls of the Capitol to lobby lawmakers.

"He would actually travel to Tallahassee a lot on major issues. It's not like he had to come from South Florida," Messersmith said. "He was often here and often helped."

He said Rutherford's demeanor makes him an effective voice in a Capitol full of well-heeled interests.

That dynamic was on display during January testimony that Rutherford gave in support of a bill cracking down on the growing problem of scrap metal theft. With a room full of lobbyists at his back and the six-member Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee seated in front of him, Rutherford coolly opened his testimony with an anecdote. …