ORLANDO — Republican Pam Bondi and Democrat Dan Gelber clashed on a wide variety of issues Saturday in a spirited debate between the leading candidates for Florida attorney general.
The two lawyers met in a sometimes-tense hourlong debate at the Orlando studios of Central Florida News 13, which co-sponsored the forum with Bay News 9. It is the only TV debate in any of three open state Cabinet races on the Nov. 2 ballot and airs on both outlets Monday at 8 p.m.
As the state's chief legal officer, the attorney general represents the state in most legal disputes, combats Medicaid fraud and protects consumers from ripoffs. The attorney general also helps set statewide policy as a member of the Cabinet. Previous attorneys general, including Gov. Charlie Crist, have used the office as a springboard for governor.
Bondi, 44, is a former assistant state attorney in Hillsborough County who is seeking public office for the first time. Gelber, 50, is a state senator from Miami Beach and a former assistant U.S. attorney and former state House member.
The biggest surprise Saturday came when Bondi criticized Gelber for voting in 2001 for the "Scarlet Letter" law, which required women placing children for adoption to identify their sex partners if they could not identify the infant's father.
"You say you stand by your record? This record?" Bondi asked Gelber.
The law had bipartisan support to prevent contested adoptions. It was rescinded but was an issue in the 2006 attorney general's race when Republican Bill McCollum defeated Democrat Walter "Skip" Campbell, who sponsored the bill in the Senate. Gov. Jeb Bush signed a repeal in 2003.
Gelber noted that Marco Rubio, the Republican nominee for the Senate, and Jeff Atwater, the GOP nominee for chief financial officer, also voted for the bill. He called Bondi's raising the issue "sort of a cheap shot."
On health care, Bondi supports Florida joining 19 other states in a legal challenge to President Barack Obama's health care plan, but Gelber opposes the lawsuit. "I think the way to do that is through the Legislature, not the courts," Gelber said.
Bondi said the Obama plan is an unconstitutional overreaching of federal power. "The bottom line is, this is just unconstitutional," she said. "This has nothing to do with politics. It has everything to do with states' rights."
Gelber said he supports a Miami court decision allowing gay couples to adopt children. Bondi refused to state her opinion on the issue, either on TV or in a question-and-answer session afterward.
Bondi faulted Gelber for vowing if elected to immediately sue the Legislature under a 1998 constitutional amendment that requires Florida's public education system to be adequately funded.
Gelber tried without success to force Bondi to say if she thinks Florida schools are funded adequately. "They're not funded adequately, and I have three kids in public school, and you need to answer that question," Gelber told Bondi. "I know you don't want to."
Bondi said lawsuits already are pending on the issue and would not say if schools are funded adequately. Instead, she said she favors more school choice for parents.
Bondi seized the offensive at the outset, calling Gelber a career politician who supports higher taxes.
Gelber repeatedly faulted Bondi for seeking support from some of the state's most powerful special interests as she seeks an office that should safeguard consumers from unscrupulous corporations.
"You can't be on their side and on the side of consumers," Gelber told Bondi. She said Gelber sought the Florida Chamber of Commerce endorsement that Bondi is proud she won.
Property insurance was another area of disagreement. Bondi said she favors deregulating the insurance market to attract more companies to Florida and reduce the exposure of the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. after a major hurricane.
Gelber disagreed, saying deregulation means rates would rise significantly for Florida homeowners.
In their closing statements, both candidates returned to the essentials of their campaigns: Gelber as the tough ex-prosecutor and Bondi as the political outsider.
"Look, you're hiring your lawyer," Gelber said, looking into the camera as he cited support from 10 newspaper editorials. "I have a deeper and broader background. … I will stand up for you. I am not somebody who will be worried about the Tallahassee ruling elite."
Said Bondi: "I oppose big-government takeovers. He will support the federal health care mandate," Bondi said. "I am an outsider who has experience taking on the system. Dan, you are the system, and that's the difference."
The only areas where the two candidates agreed were that public corruption is a major problem in Florida and that its seaports deserve better promotion and more protection from terrorist attacks.
Independent candidate Jim Lewis of Fort Lauderdale was excluded from the debate because he failed to meet the TV stations' criteria for fundraising and polling.
Lewis, 53, a civil lawyer and former assistant attorney general, supports decriminalizing marijuana possession and says state prisons house too many nonviolent drug users. "I haven't raised the money from lobbyists and special interests, but I'm still a viable candidate," Lewis said.