TALLAHASSEE — Pam Bondi is running for attorney general as a conservative Republican, but for much of her adult life she was a registered Democrat.
Hillsborough County elections records show Bondi registered to vote as a Democrat in 1984 and switched to Republican on July 21, 2000. That was about a week after her then-boss, State Attorney Harry Lee Coe III, took his life.
Coe, a two-term Democratic state attorney and former circuit judge, was seeking a third term and Bondi's last boss, Mark Ober, was the leading Republican candidate for state attorney.
Despite those dramatic events, Bondi said she could not recall why she became a Republican when she did.
Bondi said she remained a Democrat in the 1980s and 1990s because Democrats dominated the local political landscape. She could recall voting for just two Democrats: former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco and Coe in his second term after he defeated Republican State Attorney Bill James.
"If you lived in Tampa during those years, you really couldn't vote in a race if you weren't a Democrat," Bondi said. "There were many moderate Democrats."
Bondi, 44, a former Hillsborough County prosecutor, is locked in a three-way fight for the Republican nomination for attorney general with former state agency head Holly Benson and Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp.
The race will be decided Aug. 24, and Bondi may be able to deflect her past Democratic ties by pointing out that one of heroes, Ronald Reagan, was once a Democrat, too.
"I love Ronald Reagan," Bondi said. "I had a Jeb Bush bumper sticker on my car, and I had my picture taken with both Bush brothers."
Bondi was a Democrat during Reagan's second term as president, George H.W. Bush's presidency, Jeb Bush's first two campaigns for governor and all the Bill Clinton years. She said she was sure she voted for Reagan and the elder Bush.
Her reason for switching: "Because I'm firmly in line with Republican values."
Kottkamp questioned Bondi's commitment to the GOP.
"I've never been confused about my core political principles," he said, citing his work as a Reagan volunteer in 1980 and later as a Republican precinct committeeman in Lee County and a GOP legislator from Cape Coral. "I have always voted for and worked to elect Republican candidates."
Benson declined to comment.
Voting records in Escambia and Lee Counties show that Benson and Kottkamp are lifelong Republicans.
A number of prominent political figures, including Bob Martinez, the former Tampa mayor who in 1986 became the state's second Republican governor since Reconstruction, switched from the Democrat to Republican in the 1980s. Martinez, now a lobbyist, serves as Bondi's campaign chairman.
Until she decided to run for attorney general less than a year ago, Bondi said, she had "zero political aspirations."
"Political labels were never important to me," Bondi said. "I know how I voted and how I felt as I grew in my education and as a prosecutor. … I've always been conservative."
She calls herself "pro-business, pro-Second Amendment and pro-national defense," and said she hoped voters would not hold her Democratic past against her.
"I registered at 18 years old, and I went through school. You develop your values and your ethics as you develop as an adult,'' she said. "My values, I learned, were completely in line with the Republican Party."
Election records also show Bondi didn't always vote when she had the chance. She skipped party primary elections in 1984, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1992, 2002 and 2008. She did not cast a ballot in the last presidential primary in January 2008.
She said she regretted not taking advantage of early voting when she could have. "I should have voted. I realize how important every vote is," Bondi said.
Times staff writer Letitia Stein and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.