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Bondi's rise to attorney general began with one man's idea

Pam Bondi celebrates her Nov. 2 victory to become Florida attorney general at TPepin’s Hospitality Centre in Tampa.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Pam Bondi celebrates her Nov. 2 victory to become Florida attorney general at TPepin’s Hospitality Centre in Tampa.

TAMPA — Pam Bondi had no political base and no political ambitions.

Yet, in less than a year, the longtime prosecutor beat out a sitting lieutenant governor and two seasoned politicians for the job of Florida attorney general.

"It's a phenomenal feat when you look at the whole playing field," said her former boss, Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober.

She won with timing and hard work, by choosing possibility over comfort. The victory will take Bondi from a job supervising no one to the helm of an office that employs more than 1,200 people.

It started with a phone call from a man in a Baltimore parking lot.

• • •

Spring 2009.

Adam Goodman had traveled north to visit his father, but the GOP imagemaker's mind was mired in Florida politics.

At the time, Charlie Crist looked poised to run for Senate instead of seeking a second term as governor. A cascade of races for open statewide offices would follow, including attorney general.

Goodman considered Bondi, 44, a candidate straight out of central casting: fresh, smart and attractive. A real-life prosecutor.

The man who helped Rudy Giuliani win re-election as New York mayor in the '90s pulled into a parking lot, dialed Bondi's number and told her that she should consider running.

The idea "seemed to hit her like a ton of bricks," he said.

Are you kidding? she responded. Me?

Then, Goodman remembers, she cross-examined him, asking all sort of questions before saying she had a lot to think about.

Who could blame her? Bondi had a solid job prosecuting crime and serving as the public face of the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office. Tampa had always been home. Her family was close by. She was in a long-term relationship with a Tampa ophthalmologist.

"It was a very difficult decision for her," said Goodman, a media consultant who first met Bondi through Ober's re-election campaign and got to know her better during her doomed adoption of a Hurricane Katrina rescue dog.

In the months after that initial phone conversation, "at times she was emboldened, and at times she was reluctant and sometimes both simultaneously."

By year's end, she was all in.

"She truly believed that she could make a difference," Ober said.

• • •

One campaign staffer likened the early efforts to a startup company.

Bondi and a few staffers fanned spreadsheets of potential donors around her kitchen table and got to the task of raising money.

Then they hit the road to build name recognition.

Her experience as a Fox News legal analyst gave her a boost in a tight three-way Republican primary race. So did the guidance of political insiders including Goodman, former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and Kathleen Shanahan, who served as chief of staff to Gov. Jeb Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Former Gov. Bob Martinez said his wife, Mary Jane, who taught Bondi at King High School, urged him to get involved in the campaign. The couple asked friends around the state to meet with Bondi and hear her platform.

"If she could get the meeting, she can be very convincing about what her credentials are," Martinez said. "I always felt real good that she was not only going to get nominated but, if she got nominated, she would win."

Bondi reveled in the connections she made with people in the dozens of cities she visited. Her outsider status and tough talk against the federal health care law resonated with many voters.

But the battle wasn't without bruises.

Critics poked at her spotty voting record and somewhat recent conversion to the Republican Party. She sometimes struggled to state her positions on controversial subjects like gay adoption or policy issues that went beyond the legal system.

A critic questioned her conservative values.

Writing that Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp was the strongest supporter of marriage and family issues, social conservative John Stemberger noted that Bondi has no children and lives with her boyfriend.

"She took great umbrage to that," Goodman said.

Amid the personal attacks, Bondi questioned her decision to run, he said, but encounters with voters on the campaign trail reinvigorated her.

"In many ways, the 18 years as a prosecutor really did prepare her for the rough and tumble of politics," he said.

In the end, Bondi benefitted from the surge of support shown for Republicans in elections around the state and country. Defeating state Sen. Dan Gelber with 55 percent of the vote, she became Florida's first female attorney general.

She will oversee an office with a $187 million budget and help set statewide policy as a member of the Cabinet.

"This is so surreal," Bondi said after getting swarmed by well-wishers at her victory party.

She plans to put a gang violence initiative into effect in January. She called for a bipartisan effort in Tallahassee but vowed to continue the legal challenge to the "federal government health care takeover."

Throughout the campaign, Bondi said she wanted to serve eight years as attorney general and then return home to Tampa.

Will her new political base and statewide office amp up her aspirations?

Bondi was traveling late last week and could not be reached.

"To her, being attorney general of the state of Florida is akin to being the president of the United States," Goodman said. "That's as big as it gets."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Bondi's rise to attorney general began with one man's idea 11/07/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 8, 2010 8:59am]

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