Why does Brian Rush think he can knock off Rick Scott for one of Florida's Senate seats?

Brian Rush, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Florida, is a retired attorney from Carrollwood in unincorporated Hillsborough County.
Brian Rush, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Florida, is a retired attorney from Carrollwood in unincorporated Hillsborough County.
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Quick question: Who's running for U.S. Senate as a Democrat against Rick Scott?

You might know that Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a former one-term congresswoman from South Florida, is the leading candidate. You might not. A November poll of Florida voters by the University of North Florida showed 48% of respondents either didn't know who she was or didn't answer a question about her favorability.

Debbie Mucarsel-Powell
Debbie Mucarsel-Powell

And you might have heard of Alan Grayson of Orlando, who's run for federal office seven times since 2008. He won three elections and lost four, including three in a row. And then there are five others.

Brian Rush, one of those five, is a retired trial lawyer who's making an argument that he can not only defeat Mucarsel-Powell but Scott, as well. A former four-term Florida House member, Rush finished a distant second to Val Demings in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in 2022.

But Demings by this point had raised more than $7 million, as opposed to Mucarsel-Powell, who had raised $3.8 million through Dec. 31, the most recent quarterly report available. Rush says he can raise what he needs to compete and will win on his message: Taking on serious problems such as lowering Floridians' property insurance rates, securing Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, increasing student-loan payback rates and shaping policies to foster more affordable housing.

“For Democrats, you ought to nominate somebody who knows how to fight. I’m not a wallflower. I’m a rootin’ tootin’ retired trial lawyer," Rush said. "I know how to go after Rick Scott and I know how to win this race. But you don’t win it by playing it safe.”

Do Democrats even have a chance in 2024?

Two years ago, Demings appeared to be one of Florida Democrats' best chances to win a statewide race. A congresswoman who served as one of the managers in the first Donald Trump impeachment, Demings was also a former Orlando police chief.

That year, Democrats performed better than expected nationally, in part based on their pro-choice messaging following the Supreme Court's freshly minted decision repealing Roe v. Wade. Demings, who ultimately raised more than $81 million, hammered the abortion rights message home but nonetheless fell to incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio by 17 percentage points in a Republican rout.

This year, the Democrats have similar high hopes taking on Scott, who has won three consecutive statewide races including 2018, when he unseated Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson by just 10,000 votes out of more than 8 million cast.

Are there reasons for Democrats' optimism?

"Umm ... no?" said Aubrey Jewett, a longtime associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida. "In terms of winning the race, it still doesn't look great for Dems. The best thing going for them is Rick Scott, by most accounts, is not nearly as popular as Marco Rubio or Ron DeSantis. Perhaps he's a little bit more vulnerable than most of the Republican statewide officeholders."

Nikki Fried
Nikki Fried

Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried said her party has a "real chance" to defeat Scott.

"He has never won an election by more than 1% and he’s never run in a presidential election year," Fried said in a statement provided to The News-Journal. "We will remind voters of Rick Scott’s unpopular record on abortion and plans to gut Social Security and Medicare at the ballot box in November.”

However, Democrats have fallen into a voter-registration "abyss," Jewett said, pointing to the GOP's 825,000-voter lead. So their message will have to appeal beyond their own ranks and tap into a majority of independent voters.

For Rush, the months leading to the Aug. 20 primary are a test of building name recognition and voters' trust.

He is a 65-year-old one-time four-term Florida House member and longtime resident of Carrollwood, an unincorporated burg near Tampa, after being born and raised in St. Petersburg.

Rush retired from his law practice last year. He had been found after several days of proceedings to have violated standards and rules of conduct of the Florida Bar.

The owners of a 400-acre property in Plant City hired Rush to represent them in an eminent domain matter involving the Florida Department of Transportation, with the expectation that under Florida law, FDOT would pay their attorney's fees. Rush contends he was owed four years' worth of legal fees and expert witnesses' costs associated with the case, while neither the developer nor FDOT paid him.

The bar's referee, retired judge William Douglas Baird, wrote that Rush “conducted his representation in a manner that promoted his financial self-interest, namely in his desire for a greater attorney’s fee than he would otherwise receive, over his obligation to serve the interests and objectives of his client.” Baird recommended Rush be suspended from the bar for three years.

Rush says he was never paid for his four years of work on the matter, and that the developers and FDOT lawyers “acted in concert” to file the bar complaint to eliminate the state’s obligation to pay the fees and costs.

"As a result of the Florida Bar complaint, we filed a federal court complaint and the federal judge, in an order which is about 18 months old, authorized us to pursue a federal antitrust lawsuit against the FDOT, the FDOT’s lawyers and the Florida Bar, as well as, I think, some other individuals,” Rush said. “That order remains in effect. We have not yet pursued that. We’ve been pretty busy with the politics.”

Rush said he hasn't missed practicing law.

“There’s some people who don’t like me. I get it. There are some lawyers who don’t like me, and there are some judges who don’t like me. I get it," he said. "My father raised 12 children. He said, ‘Tell the truth. Stand up. And be prepared to fight for your position.' And that’s what all my brothers and sisters do. We stand up and we lead.”

Rush's plan to fix Florida homeowners' insurance problem

Homeowner's insurance and the cost of housing have emerged as top concerns among many Florida voters, polls show, but they are more commonly the bailiwick of state officials, such as the governor and legislature.

Rush doesn't disagree that insurance affordability is more of a state issue. But he says the Republicans who've controlled Florida for the better part of three decades have failed to adequately address those concerns, and he sees a way the U.S. Congress can help.

Insurance rates have become volatile in Florida because of the increasing number of destructive storms during hurricane season, he contends.  Of particular concern is DeSantis' declaration that Citizens Insurance, the largest provider in Florida, is insolvent, so with a major hurricane, it and other insurance companies will likely be unable to pay claims.

"The Republicans don’t care, and so they are not requiring efficient reserves," Rush said. "And so when a hurricane like Hurricane Ian hits, they have a large number of insolvencies, that is insurance companies can’t pay the homeowner who just lost their house, and added to that, is that there’s no state money to strengthen these structures."

The federal government can create a national catastrophe fund, which he said will stabilize home insurance rates in Florida and other states.

“What I’m proposing is that the federal government levy a corporate income tax matched by a state income tax on corporations," Rush said. "That would create a catastrophe fund which would help protect Florida homeowners, and would also stabilize the insurance companies because one of the reasons you have insurance rates going crazy in this state is because insurance companies look at Florida and say, here’s this peninsula that sticks out into the Gulf of Mexico, and you have global warming - you do, temperatures are rising."

Hurricane Irma in 2017 had peak winds of 180 mph and a width of more than 150 miles, expansive enough to cover the entire peninsula of Florida. States aren’t ready for those kinds of storms, Rush said.

Making homes, college affordable

Rush said he wants to use the Federal Reserve to help working, middle-class families afford homes near their jobs.

“We have a whole generation of young people who can’t afford a house. They are delaying marriage. They're delaying having children. They have no ability to, even if they can come up with a down payment, they can’t afford to buy a house that’s suitable for them," he said. "Most young people have to live close into a city, where the jobs are."

Another goal should incentivizing developers to build starter homes, rather than five-bedroom, 2,500-square-foot homes far from city cores, Rush said.

"We need to use the Federal Reserve to help them finance those mortgages for young people," he said. "If we don’t do that, we’re going to see a whole generation that doesn’t get to own a house, that doesn’t get to build up any generational wealth.”

Rush said he's not a fan of President Joe Biden's efforts to forgive student loans, but he does favor a policy that would waive the interest owed, leaving students to pay off the principal.

"So if you owe $100,000, you’ve got to pay $10,000 in a year," he said. "That’s a way to get the money paid back in a reasonable amount of time.”

Rush questions why student loans' interest rates have grown over the years. This year, the rates are 5.5% for undergraduate student loans, 7.05% for graduate or professional programs and 8.05% for parent loans.

To help lower the costs for families, he proposes to allow income expenses to be deducted from income for tax purposes.

Still, policies must be sharpened to reduce the total amount of student debt, more than $1.7 trillion, he said.

“Does that mean they’re never going to pay it back? Is that the plan?”

The federal government ought to be able to put people who've defaulted on student loans in bankruptcy, where the schools that received the student loans should have to cough up some of that cash, according to Rush.

“The federal government ought not to be on the hook for all of this spending that’s going to universities, whether it’s Embry-Riddle or whoever," he said. "Now Embry-Riddle may not like that. But all I would say to Embry-Riddle is you’ve got to have a more economically effective system because we can’t have the federal government losing ($1.7 trillion)."

It should be noted, too, that the student loan default rate has steadily fallen since the Great Recession. In 2010, it was 21.8%, while the rate was 11.2% in 2018, according to an article by the Education Data Initiative.

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott speaks to Jewish leaders at a Boca Raton synagogue Oct. 19, about the Hamas attacks on Israel.
U.S. Sen. Rick Scott speaks to Jewish leaders at a Boca Raton synagogue Oct. 19, about the Hamas attacks on Israel.

Spending time in global hotspots Israel, Taiwan

Within the past five years, Rush said he has spent two weeks in Israel, two weeks in Germany and two more in Japan. He wants to go to Ukraine, and pledged to visit that war-torn nation if he's elected.

He's unequivocal in his support for Israel's right to destroy the Hamas government that controls Gaza and attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

"They slaughtered men, women and children. They raped, they burned them alive and they filmed it," Rush said. "If they’re not Nazis, they’re behaving like Nazis."

He supports humanitarian aid for the Gaza civilians who are trapped in a territory that's under assault by Israel and its own leadership which has vowed to make Israel an Islamic nation. But Rush cautions that Hamas will attempt to steal food and other aid for its own purposes.

On Ukraine, Rush favors continued support of its fight against a Russian invasion for more than two years, and believes the Biden Administration didn't provide the Ukrainians with the weaponry they needed to win the war.

Calls from the far-right of the Republican Party to halt U.S. aid to Ukraine is "insanity squared," Rush said, suggesting if Russia captures all even half of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin won't stop there.

“The last thing that I want is Russian soldiers facing off against American soldiers at the Polish border," he said. "And that’s exactly what we’re going to have. And the U.S. is pretty much bound to go to war to defend all those countries.”

Ukraine policy has implications for the United States' standing around the world, Rush said.

“If we don’t stand with Ukraine after we left Afghanistan and bailed out on our allies there," he said, "maybe we’re going to bail out on Israel."

He suggested that kind of track record would embolden China to attempt a takeover of Taiwan, an island country of 24 million that has never been under Chinese communist control. Such a move would be cause for concern for the U.S. allies in Asia, particularly Japan and South Korea.

Rush said it's important for prospective senators to understand the globe.

"I spent 13 days in Taiwan. I circumnavigated the entire island. I went to their air force base." he said. "I don’t think you should run for the Senate unless you have seen who you are depending on."

This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Brian Rush takes aim at Rick Scott with insurance, housing proposals