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Democrats vying for attorney general post fight for consumer advocate mantle

TALLAHASSEE — As two of the state's leading Democrats vie for attorney general, the contest is becoming exactly what the party didn't want — nasty.

Dave Aronberg labels rival Dan Gelber a hypocrite beholden to special interests. Gelber calls Aronberg a "junior lawyer" and a "typical politician."

The attacks come as the state lawmakers, who sat 6 feet apart on the Senate floor, seek an edge in a tight primary race where they agree on most major issues.

Beyond the blustery attack ads, the two are battling to claim the title of consumer advocate.

The state's chief legal officer — arguably the second most powerful elected post — plays a key role in protecting Florida consumers from fraud and discrimination.

"It's probably a more powerful position than the governor because he can use the courts rather than the Legislature," said Walt Dartland, the executive director of the Consumer Federation of the Southeast and a former candidate for attorney general.

An examination of the candidates' legislative records show Aronberg and Gelber split on several key consumer issues, such as property insurance and utility regulation. The votes reflect larger philosophical differences between the two men.

Aronberg, 39, is moderate, reflecting the even partisan split in his district, and sides often with business groups. He is more youthful with a people-pleaser attitude.

At a recent campaign stop, Aronberg used the word "consumer" five times in a seven minute speech as he talked about his legal experience fighting for people and the litany of "consumer protection" legislation he sponsored in his eight years in the Senate.

A Harvard graduate, he took leave from a private Miami law firm to work with the state's insurance commissioner in the 1990s to investigate companies that refused to pay claims on policies sold to Holocaust victims. He later joined the Florida Attorney General's Office "to stand up for consumers full time," he said.

As a lawmaker, he established a consumer fraud post in his office, hiring a former deputy attorney general who helped recover $4 million for his constituents.

Gelber, 49, represents the liberal Miami Beach. He is a fiery partisan with a self-assured demeanor.

The son of a prosecutor and judge, he became a federal prosecutor in South Florida at age 25, developing an expertise in public corruption and civil rights. A number of the cases involved economic crimes, where he said he targeted public officials and scam artists.

"I prosecuted the kinds of cases where there are real victims to crimes," Gelber said. As a top Democrat in the House, he led the effort against rate hikes for the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Co. and pushed a bill to expand prescription drug discounts.

Although both men claim the high ground on consumer issues, an examination of legislative records shows Aronberg and Gelber split on several key votes.

In 2003, the telecommunications industry pushed a controversial bill to increase phone rates as much as 20 percent a year. Aronberg voted yes. Gelber, then a House member, missed the vote, but a day later recorded his opposition to the measure.

Another dividing issue: property insurance — in particular, the industry's effort to reduce state regulation of homeowner policies.

In 2009, the Legislature passed HB 1171 to give large insurers the ability to set rates without state oversight, a move that critics said would lead to costlier policies. Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed the bill.

Aronberg voted yes; Gelber voted no. Aronberg explained his vote by saying, "Sometimes less regulation is better for consumers."

In a campaign mailer, Aronberg criticized Gelber for his vote on a different insurance bill that year. It allowed Citizens Insurance to raise rates up to 10 percent a year to improve its financial stability. Aronberg voted yes; Gelber, no.

Aronberg contends Gelber's vote against the 10 percent cap would have allowed the company to increase rates even higher.

Gelber called the attack misleading, and said he voted no because he didn't think Citizens should hike its rates at all.

"He literally did exactly what the insurance industry wanted him to," Gelber said. "I clearly had the consumer side on that."

This year, Aronberg and Gelber differed on the confirmation of two Public Service Commission members, David Klement and Benjamin "Steve'' Stevens. The board regulates utilities, and the nominees had voted to block two of the largest rate increases in Florida history being sought by Progress Energy and Florida Power & Light.

Aronberg voted to reject both nominees. Gelber voted to confirm them but on the Senate floor changed his mind and voted against Stevens because he "prejudged" a rate case. "He said something in a committee that bothered me," Gelber said later.

Aronberg, who is affiliated with a political committee that got $25,000 from Florida Power & Light in July, said the nominees weren't qualified. He dismissed the idea that the donation influenced him.

"I think the business community has overall been more supportive of me," he said. "I'm proud of my voting record."

With the tight race, most consumer advocates in Florida find it hard to discern a favorite.

Dartland, who represents the Tallahassee-based Consumer Federation of the Southeast, is staying out of the race. And Bill Newton, the head of Florida's Consumer Action Network, said his group isn't making endorsements.

Democrats vying for attorney general post fight for consumer advocate mantle 08/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 7, 2010 12:55am]
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