TALLAHASSEE — Democrats Dave Aronberg and Dan Gelber fought against big money in politics as lawmakers but as the two battle in an increasingly negative primary election for attorney general, they are reversing course.
A political committee tied to Aronberg is accepting dozens of unlimited checks — including 21 for $5,000 or more — from lobbyists and special interests to fuel television commercials attacking Gelbert for his former law firm's ties to BP.
It's exactly what Aronberg, a state senator from Greenacres, fought to prohibit when he sponsored legislation this year to put a $500 limit on contributions to political committees.
Likewise, Gelber created a political committee in July and took big-dollar contributions from trial lawyers and special interests to pay for a mailer tarring Aronberg for his negative attacks and Republican-leaning votes on legislation.
Given Gelber's history as a leading advocate of campaign finance reform, the move puts him in a similarly awkward position. The Miami Beach state senator sponsored a bill this year to ban any statewide candidate or lawmaker from raising money for a political committee and to make it a third-degree felony.
So why the change?
Aronberg and Gelber give the same answer: "I can't unilaterally disarm."
Gelber said he "hates" these political committees and pledged Wednesday to stop using his group, Common Sense, to attack Aronberg if his rival did the same.
But Aronberg rebuffed the loaded challenge.
"That's like a boxer who throws the first punch and asks for the fight to be called off," he said.
The broken peace negotiations led Wednesday to more barbs in a race the candidates once vowed they wouldn't make nasty.
On July 7, Aronberg filed to solicit contributions for Florida Mainstream Democrats, a political group tied to two other lawmakers. A week later, Gelber started Common Sense and began raising money.
But Aronberg scolded Gelber for launching the first attack from the outside groups: a flier that hit mailboxes Saturday asking, "What is Dave Aronberg hiding?"
The piece attacked Aronberg for voting for conservative causes in the state Senate and leveling misleading attacks on Gelber's ties to his former law firm, which is representing BP in the oil spill.
Aronberg responded by buying more TV time to air his claim that links Gelber to his former law firm, which is representing BP.
Gelber's camp responded by criticizing Aronberg for using a group called Voters Response to air the ad. The group is run by a Republican lobbyist with ties to Republican candidates and consulting firms.
Aronberg said he didn't know anything about the group's GOP ties, saying his political consultants handled the matter. He said the conservative consulting firms weren't doing any work for him.
And at the same time Aronberg returned fire, saying Gelber's attacks are hypocritical given his claims about cracking down on special interests and political money.
"Leave it to a politician," Aronberg said, "to sling mud at the same time as condemning his opponent for slinging mud."
John Frank can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.