Republican — and proud of it
With the GOP lambasting trial lawyers, academy President Alexander Clem finds himself in a frustrating position.
The 41-year-old Clem makes no apologies to his colleagues in the mostly Democrat-aligned plaintiffs Bar for such a pedigree. "I tout it," he says. "I wear it on my sleeve, just like I wear the fact that I'm a trial lawyer on my sleeve."
In June, Clem, who has made a fortune suing nursing homes as a partner in the Orlando personal injury firm Morgan, Colling & Gilbert, was named president of the powerful statewide trial lawyers association.
His term began just as the organization was preparing for another scorching battle over tort reform. Doctors and trial lawyers are aiming for each other's hearts with three constitutional amendments designed to tilt the playing field in medical malpractice cases. The academy spent between $12 million and
$15 million on the referendum battle.
Clem -- known as "Zander" -- is equally unapologetic about his profession among his fellow Republicans. Tort reform, he tells them, does not fit with what he believes are the fundamental Republican tenets of free markets, less government regulation and strong, co-equal branches of government.
"I have never had a problem squaring my Republican ideology and my advocacy for citizens who have been hurt and for the civil justice system," says Clem.
It wasn't too long ago that Clem would have stuck out like a sore thumb among academy members.
Orlando products liability lawyer C. Richard Newsome, a longtime friend, remembers when he and Clem were "the two lone Republicans in the room" during academy gatherings in 1997.
Not so anymore. Clem says a little over a third of the academy's 4,200 members call themselves Republican, along with half of the group's 10-member executive committee.
The fact that they have company now is something most members acknowledge is a good thing, says immediate past President Richard Shapiro of Bradenton. "The days of being tethered solely to Democrats are over," says Shapiro. "We had to make a decision about whether we were going to be issue-driven as opposed to party-driven."
There are practical reasons to welcome such a change.
"Of course it helps out at a time when the Republicans are in control of all branches of government," Shapiro says.
Creeping bipartisanship within the academy has not changed the fact that Clem is something of a curiosity in a year when presidential politics have made a Republican mantra of the words "frivolous lawsuit."
"It has surprised people," acknowledges Clem.
But Clem does not hold back his criticism for the political "operatives" in his party who he says have made trial lawyers into the enemy. "Those are the folks who have ginned this thing up," he says with the accented speech of a fifth-generation Floridian. "It creates a frustrating situation for me. I think they're totally wrong; they're off-base; they're misguided."
Academy leaders make no secret that they're hoping Clem's credentials will bring the academy more access in legislative circles. But there are limits. No one expects the door to the governor's office to swing open for the trial lawyers.
But Clem says he is encouraged by Republican leaders who share his views. "A lot of people are open-minded," he says.