TALLAHASSEE — Behind in fundraising and virtually unknown to many voters, chief financial officer candidate Loranne Ausley is trying to tar her opponent with nearly every questionable move made by the Legislature.
At news conferences across the state, Ausley argues that Senate President Jeff Atwater shares some blame for scandals such as an opulent new courthouse in the state capital and the Legislature's failure to audit lobbyist disclosure reports.
"I'm running against Senate President Jeff Atwater — pretty much the poster child for everything that is wrong with Tallahassee," said Ausley, a former four-term House member.
Atwater of North Palm Beach has generally shied away from attacking his opponent, saying such talk is not healthy.
"We have not taken the time to hold press conferences to characterize any of Loranne Ausley's votes because it's not a solution to what the voters are suffering from," he said. "And there are plenty of votes I could have a field day characterizing."
Some of Ausley's attacks include:
• Criticizing Atwater for voting for a $33.5 million bond issue to help build a new courthouse for the 1st District Court of Appeal, a building dubbed a "Taj Mahal" because of its ornate furnishings. The measure was slipped into an unrelated transportation bill on the last day of the 2007 session.
Atwater, who was not Senate president at the time, says he simply voted for the bond and that the construction details were handled by the court system and the state building agency. "Apparently I personally went out and hand-built the 1st DCA building," he said.
• Calling on Atwater to investigate a top legislator, Senate Majority Leader Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, after the Times/Herald reported that Diaz de la Portilla sided with a prison vendor in a contract dispute only days after the vendor wrote a $15,000 campaign check to the senator's brother. The contractor said someone from his organization visited the offices of the majority leader, the governor, and Atwater about the contract dispute.
An Atwater spokesman said he could find no record of the contractor visiting the Senate president's office.
• Chiding Atwater and the Legislature for not auditing, as required by law, reports showing what lobbyists earn from interest groups. The Atwater campaign says lawmakers made a good-faith effort to implement the auditing provision. Atwater's chief of staff says the law was written such that it makes it nearly impossible for a Florida firm to perform the audits.
Ausley's strategy is part of a larger effort by the Democratic Party to tie Republicans to several recent scandals in Tallahassee. The party has set up a coordinated campaign to reach out to voters on behalf of all statewide Democrats.
Democrats hope that, come Election Day, voters will remember stories such as the indictment of ex-House Speaker Ray Sansom, former Republican party boss Jim Greer's arrest and free-spending Republican Party leaders with Amex cards.
But Atwater adviser Rick Wilson dismissed that tactic, saying the Republican is running an issues-based race and not one "based on the cheap political stunt of the day."
The relatively low-key Atwater campaign launched its first attack last week, calling Ausley a hypocrite because she had sponsored a bill to exempt some meals from the lobbyist gift ban law, which also includes the auditing provision. Ausley's bill would have allowed legislators to accept meals up to $19 at certain events hosted by professional groups, including lobbyists.
Ausley spokesman Kevin Cate said "there's a clear line of distinction between ignoring the law and trying to make a law better." He added that all the meals would have been fully disclosed and that they would have allowed lawmakers to be better engaged with their constituents.
A Sept. 20-22 survey by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research shows the race in a statistical dead heat, with Atwater garnering 29 percent of the vote and Ausley grabbing 27 percent. Nearly 40 percent of voters are undecided.
But Ausley is little known (that poll shows that three-quarters of voters don't recognize her) and Atwater has long held a fundraising edge. The latest campaign finance totals show Atwater with almost $3.2 million on hand while Ausley has banked a little more than $1.1 million.
Lee Logan can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.