Tom vs. Pearl: Battle Royale 

'I'd love to say I stopped tort reform, but I didn't'
Tom Bordeaux refuses to back down from the toughest political fight of his life

The plaque in Tom Bordeaux’s Liberty Street law office wasn’t intended to be ironic. Awarded by a state medical association some years ago, it lauds him as “a friend of medicine.”

Now, the fourteen-year Savannah representative is in the political fight of his life. His chief enemy is none other than the medical community, which is backing his opponent Pearl Persad to the hilt.

Doctors are fighting mad at Bordeaux over his opposition to tort reform -- i.e., limiting damages on liability suits -- which doctors say will lower the skyrocketing cost of malpractice insurance.

They found an unlikely ally in Bordeaux’s fellow Democrat, House Speaker Terry Coleman, who sacked Bordeaux as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee during the last session of the Georgia legislature for bottling up tort reform bills in committee.

We spoke to Bordeaux July 9 in his office. Passionate and articulate, he is that rare politician who does not speak in carefully crafted soundbites.

Connect Savannah: Your opponents have done a pretty good job of painting you as public enemy number one on tort reform.

Tom Bordeaux: I’d love to say I stopped tort reform, but I didn’t. I was more like a speed bump. It was actually the Senate that rejected caps on damages.

Connect Savannah: But caps on damages are the main thing tort reformers in the Senate want.

Tom Bordeaux: There are lots of different types of tort reform, some of which I support. There are efforts against frivolous litigation and there are changes in insurance law. And it can take the form of a cap on damages. That’s what the medical community most wants, because it makes them immune across the board.

You know who stopped tort reform? A state senator named Tom Price, from Roswell. An orthopedic surgeon.

When the bill was in the conference committee -- where the House and Senate work out differences in their two versions of a bill -- Tom Price insisted that caps be part of the deal.

People were telling him, “How can you justify asking for caps to be part of the deal when your body has already voted against caps? That’s not the way it works.” So he said, if we can’t have caps, we don’t want anything.

So the Senate, on the last night of the session, voted to remove its own conferees because they were acting in bad faith. It wasn’t me that acted in bad faith.

Connect Savannah: It’s ironic that this race has become about tort reform. With you out of the judiciary committee chair some tort reform is likely regardless.

Tom Bordeaux: The speaker didn’t need to can me if what he wanted was tort reform. The bill didn’t need to come through my committee. It could have come through the rules committee or other vehicles that are out there.

Coleman basically offered me up as a sacrificial lamb to the insurance companies and the medical industry because I was such a pain in their butt. And frankly I was a pain the butt, because I asked them tough questions like, “prove it.” Prove what you’re saying about malpractice claims driving up premiums.

Connect Savannah: Explain why the average person might not really want to see tort reform pass.

Tom Bordeaux: There’s this AM radio culture out there that says people are going around suing everybody, saying “Oh my aching back.” But we’re talking about a brain-damaged baby. Or a paralyzed or dead patient. Or a doctor cutting off the wrong leg or the wrong breast.

Onr day in the last session a member was on the floor asking who’d like to co-sponsor his bill putting a cap on damages at $250,000. I went down and said to him, “So tell me something. Let’s say when you were 18 the doctor botched your hernia surgery and ruined you down there, rendering you impotent, sterile, and incontinent for the rest of your life. Say you die a natural death at age 78. The whole time you can’t have sex. You can’t have children. You pee on yourself. Under your bill you would get a maximum of $250,000. Is that fair?”

At first he wouldn’t answer. So I kept asking him, “Is that fair?” Eventually he said, “Well, I guess it wouldn’t be fair for somebody like me.” I’m not sure what he meant by that. So I asked him, “Then tell me who it’s fair for.” And I started pointing to other members of the House. “Is it fair for him? How about him? Or him?”

I don’t care what the radio talk shows say. I keep asking the Medical Association of Georgia to show me these jackpot jury awards they keep talking about. And they still can’t come up with any.

Connect Savannah: But if it’s not jury awards, what’s the problem?

Tom Bordeaux: It’s complex, and anybody who tells you there’s a simple solution doesn’t understand the issue.

Insurance companies are required to set aside enough money to pay your claim, in some form of reserve. Ten years ago, when the market was great, insurance companies invested a portion of that reserve into the stock market and the bond market. When the market went down, they saw profits cut by two-thirds. So to make it up they raised premiums.

In the ‘90s the largest malpractice carrier was St. Paul Fire and Casualty. They were doing so well that their CEO decided to -- guess what? -- lower prices and give a big dividend payout to shareholders. Other companies looked at that and said, “Wow, we’ve got to get involved.” So they dove in on the tail end of the market and got in at the same premium levels as St. Paul, but they weren’t as well-capitalized or diversified.

In the meantime, St. Paul got a new CEO. Their board wanted to raise premiums, but the new CEO said, “Hey, if we do that we’ve got to go through all these public hearings, and all the headlines will say, ‘St. Paul seeks twenty percent rate hike.’” So he said, “Screw it, let’s get out.”

That left the field to all these smaller players, who aren’t as diversified or well-capitalized, who can’t take a big hit and keep on going. There’s not a single law I can pass in the Georgia Legislature that can change that.

Connect Savannah: So you’re saying even if tort reform passes, doctors’ insurance premiums won’t go down.

Tom Bordeaux: Even the Medical Association of Georgia refuses to say premiums will go down. The most they’re willing to say is premiums won’t go up as fast as they’ve been going up.

If it’s a tort-based problem, you ought to be able to draw a chart and say, “This is the rise in malpractice claims, and this is the rise in premiums.” And the two lines ought to dance together. Instead, by all objective measures in Georgia, personal injury claims are barely going up, but medical malpractice premiums are going up the wazoo.

Connect Savannah: Do you support the proposed state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage?

Tom Bordeaux: No. Last session was the nastiest, meanest, ugliest session you could imagine, with redistricting and everything else. Then through all this partisan bickering, gay marriage drops in.

A friend of mine called me up and started railing about how it was an attack on gays. And I said, “This has nothing to do with gays. They’re just the most convenient victims for Republicans. This has to do with Republicans wanting to motivate angry people to come vote in November for their candidates.” It’s just intimidation to make people feel uncomfortable with themselves and with their neighbors.

Connect Savannah: Why should people vote for you when you’re on the outs with your own Speaker?

Tom Bordeaux: Seniority does matter, and it’ll be 2018 before a freshman elected this year gets the same kind of seniority I have. Last session there were 1400 votes, on everything from water rights to a $16 billion budget to health care to port development. And we better elect someone who knows something about all those issues, even if you might not agree with him on tort reform.

Connect Savannah: After the last session you could have played the martyr and retired. Why did you decide to run again?

Tom Bordeaux: I made that decision long before Coleman did what he did. I dearly love my wife and my two small children, and when you’re in the legislature, you’re in Atlanta from Sunday through Friday, pretty much from January through April. That leaves 48 hours over the weekend to see your family and do your job.

I’ll tell you this story, even though it’s going to sound so hokey. But it’s true. This last session I had to tell my three-year-old girl I was going off to Atlanta again. At night I sing to her and rock her to sleep. So one night I told her I was going away. She said, “Why, Daddy?”

I said, “Because other little boys and girls don’t have what you have, and I want to try and help them.” She was OK with that, and that made it OK with me.

Then right before I left she handed me one of her toy animals. She said, “That’s for the other little boys and girls.”

You know, family’s the most important thing there is. But there’s something else we’re supposed to do in life. And I try to do it.

'It comes down to this: I want to make a difference'
Pearl Persad is the darling of the medical community, but she says she’s more than a doctor’s wife

In the often monotonous world of Savannah politics, with the same names and same racial divides popping up time and again, Pearl Persad is unusual.

A native of the Caribbean island nation of Grenada, Persad moved to this country in 1976, going through Toronto and Detroit before deciding she wanted to be near the coast once again.

She is married to the successful local ob/gyn Dr. Suresh Persad-Maharaj, and her campaign is itself closely tied to the local medical community -- specifically to the issue of tort reform.

As lawyers are the backbone of Tom Bordeaux’s fundraising, doctors have kicked in the vast majority of Persad’s funds, which now total $237,000 -- about 95 percent of that coming from contributors in the health care industry.

While Persad’s backing is clear, her background is less so. Her lack of previous activism has led some local Democratic insiders to question her party pedigree. Some go so far as to suggest she’s a “stealth Republican” who might switch parties if she’s elected.

The fact that Persad is employing well-known local Republican consultant Dave Simons as her campaign manager has only fed those suspicions.

We addressed those issues and others in an interview with Persad on July 9 at her husband’s practice off Eisenhower Drive, where she also works.

Clearly unhappy with previous portrayals of her in the local media, she was initially somewhat defensive. But after a few minutes, Persad proved to be charming and open, with a delightful sense of humor.

Connect Savannah: The media are making this race a grudge match between doctors and lawyers. You’ve become the poster child for tort reform.

Pearl Persad: The press and the lawyers are making this an issue about tort reform. They want to make this all about tort reform because I’m a doctor’s wife. I have no problems with lawyers. My daughter is studying to be a lawyer. This has to do with where we are now and what can be done about it.

Tort reform has been on the floor many years before me. It’s not one of the main issues. For me, it’s about the needs of the constituents not being met on these three issues: Health care, education, and the needs of small businesses.

We need to make health care affordable and available. There are a million uninsured people in Georgia, most of them working poor. There’s a real health care crisis right now, and tort reform is just a part of that.

Ninety billion dollars are spent every year in this country on defensive medicine. You go into the emergency room and all these tests have to be done to make sure the doctor won’t get sued. I’m saying if we can cut a billion dollars of that each year from each state, then we can take that money and get help for uninsured people.

And you know what’s the first thing I’d like to do? Ban smoking in public places. For health care.

Connect Savannah: What are your ideas on education?

Pearl Persad: Education is for me even more important. Bill Cosby says we’re losing two generations of black people in this country. The prison rate is going up, the crime rate is going up, and that’s almost all high school dropouts, mainly black men. If people are hopeless, you have to give them hope. We’ve got to hang in there and not give up. We’ve got to help people stay in school, with mentoring programs to help them do their homework and more education.

We have to teach people how to be parents. We can’t expect teachers to do that. The schools are already overcrowded and underfunded. It’s like Hillary Clinton said -- you have to get the whole village to raise a child.

All this affects business, too, because we need educated, skilled workers. Without education, what happens? You’re poor. If everyone is below the poverty line, there’s no industry coming into Savannah. Tort reform affects business too. Forget the doctors -- tort reform is for all businesses.

Connect Savannah: Exactly what kind of tort reform do you support?

Pearl Persad: We need to cap contingency fees. The lawyers say they represent the poor. But some of these poor people are paying 70 cents out of every dollar they get to their lawyers. Let the lawyers only take 20 percent, not 70 percent. I want people to get the most out of their money.

Some people are saying I don’t want poor people to sue. Of course they can sue -- for negligence. If the doctor removes the wrong leg, then of course you can sue him -- he made a mistake. If there’s negligence, they have to pay for the bad thing that happened.

But to go back again and sue for pain and suffering? How can you put a price on pain and suffering? You can’t quantify that.

We’re only asking for a cap like the Texas cap [$250,000 on non-economic damages], which is working, where there’s a stable doctor population. Do you know the only black surgeon in town had to leave last year because he couldn’t afford the liability insurance?

When we started here in the ‘80s, there were 23 insurance companies. Do you know how many there are now? Three. These are just the facts.

We also have to get the drug companies to lower costs too. I met a woman in Tatemville the other day who had to sell her house and move in with her sister so she can afford her prescriptions.

Connect Savannah: What’s your position on the proposed state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage?

Pearl Persad: I’m for the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman. If you have a friend, and want to give them a gift -- you know, an estate or inheritance -- or need to get medicine, then why can’t you do that? That’s what we can help you with. We don’t need to know if you’re gay. If you’re gay that’s fine.

Connect Savannah: So you’re against gay marriage?

Pearl Persad: Yes. Because of my religious beliefs.

Connect Savannah: You’re facing criticism because apparently you have voted in very few elections.

Pearl Persad: Yes, they’re making that an issue, but how can I vote when I wasn’t a citizen? Of course you can’t vote when you’re not a citizen yet.

It’s not an issue of “did you vote.” It’s an issue about when you want to give something back to the community. This community has been very good to me. My husband and I did pretty well coming in as outsiders. We want to give something back.

Connect Savannah: Some Democratic insiders insist if you’re elected you’ll switch parties and become a Republican.

Pearl Persad: I am never going to switch. I am always going to be a Democrat. In my house, we’re always Democrats.

Connect Savannah: There’s been talk in some quarters that because you weren’t born in this country you’re somehow not “black enough” to run in Savannah.

Pearl Persad: (laughs) You tell them that the slave ship stopped in Grenada first, and let off a few of us before the rest came here to America.

Connect Savannah: Do you worry about the perception that you’re just a puppet for the doctors?

Pearl Persad: Nobody can control a Taurus woman. We have a mind of our own.

Connect Savannah: My wife, my parents and my grandmother are all Tauruses.

Pearl Persad: Then you know what I mean (laughs).

When I first went to do this, I was talking to some people at the Medical Association of Georgia. They said, “Mrs. Persad, do you have any way of raising money for your campaign? Because doctors are cheap.” Oh, they’re going to kill me for saying this (laughs)!

But doctors came out in abundance for me -- not just for tort reform. The doctors help me for a cause that I believe in. They don’t own me. We’re in a real crisis, and tort reform is just one thing under that bigger crisis.

I haven’t always been a doctor’s wife. I’ve come from a poor background, I was raised by a single parent.

In the choices that I make in life, I go to God for guidance and blessings. I try to do so many things -- I’m like Kramer on “Seinfeld.” But it comes down to this: I want to make a difference.

And make sure you write this: People won’t have to wait fourteen years to see me. When I’m elected, every three months we’ll have a meeting to find out what the people’s needs are.

The Democratic primary for State House District 162 is July 20. Incumbent Tom Bordeaux faces challengers Pearl Persad and James Carthon.

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About The Author

Jim Morekis

Jim Morekis

A native Savannahian, Jim has been editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah for ten years. The University of Georgia graduate is also a travel writer, authoring regional guides in the Moon handbook series... more

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