Thursday, April 19, 2018
Politics

Carlton: Pam Bondi deserved Anderson Cooper's sharp questions after Orlando shooting

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi found herself in a tough spot this week — one she spent a lot of time in Tallahassee creating.

Bondi was in Orlando, a city shell-shocked and heartsick after a horrible mass shooting. As the world knows by now, 49 people were murdered in a gay nightclub by a man with an assault-style rifle and God only knows what strain of madness and hate running through his brain.

So yes, you could expect people elected to run Florida to be on hand with help, empathy and a sense of leadership, hopefully without a whole lot of blatant politics in the mix.

But with Bondi came baggage.

You'll recall she was front and center in Florida's narrow-minded and ultimately doomed fight against gay marriage. She made it clear she believed maintaining a ban against people wedding whom they want was worth considerable time, effort and tax dollars. She fought on even as it became obvious we were a nation evolving. Later, in a little insult to injury, she appeared to be trying to avoid paying the full legal bill from her failed fight.

In Orlando days after the mass tragedy, Bondi stepped up for an interview with well-known CNN newsman Anderson Cooper, who is, by the way, gay. They spoke briefly about consumer concerns like post-tragedy donation scams. Cooper, however, had questions that went to the heart of Bondi being there.

Specifically: Wasn't it an act of hypocrisy?

Here is what he said: "I talked to a lot of gay and lesbian people here yesterday who are not fans of yours and who said that they thought you are being a hypocrite, that you for years have fought — you've basically gone after gay people. (You) said in court that gay people, simply by fighting for marriage equality, were trying to do harm to the people of Florida — to induce public harm, I believe was the term you used in court.

"Is it hypocritical to portray yourself as a champion of the gay community?"

If Bondi was surprised, she should not have been.

Court documents filed by her office in the yearslong battle against gay marriage contained a line that got a lot of attention. It said changing Florida's marriage laws "would impose significant public harm." It did not say this was merely the defense of a voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage and the AG's obligation, as Bondi's office later contended.

It said that allowing gays and lesbians to marry would significantly damage our state.

And so came Cooper's sharpest and most important question:

Didn't she worry that using language accusing gays of trying to do harm to the people of Florida could send a message to some people who night have ill intent against gays?

(For perspective, here is a take on that theme from Bishop Robert Lynch of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg on religion's role in targeting — usually verbally — gays, lesbians and transgender people. "Attacks today on LGBT men and women often plant the seed of contempt, then hatred, which can ultimately lead to violence," he wrote in a blog post this week.)

In the interview, Bondi defended herself. She said she swore on a Bible to uphold the Constitution. She said she never said she didn't like gay people and doesn't believe they do harm to Florida. Later, she said the interview was an ambush.

But being a public official means answering questions related to how you do your taxpayer-paid job, even when you'd prefer not to.

The exchange illustrated yet again the two Pam Bondis — the hometown Tampa prosecutor known for empathy for crime victims and shelter dogs, and the person who went to Tallahassee and fought against health care for the poor.

In the interview, Bondi was asked if, moving forward, she saw herself as a vocal champion for Florida's gays and lesbians.

We are all human beings, she said. "They are citizens, just like anyone else," she said. "Of course," she said.

Which would have been better to hear before now.

Sue Carlton can be reached at [email protected]

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