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Prosecutor Bondi leaves the courthouse and takes a hard right

Pam Bondi, right, greets Debbie Ressler, left, and Rosella Hale at a forum hosted by the Citrus Republican Women’s Club.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Pam Bondi, right, greets Debbie Ressler, left, and Rosella Hale at a forum hosted by the Citrus Republican Women’s Club.

MIAMI LAKES — Pam Bondi stands at a podium, looking and sounding a lot like the prosecutor she was for more than 18 years.

She's making a case, but not like any she has made in court.

"Washington has run roughshod over our jobs, our health care and our welfare," she tells a group of fellow Republicans gathered for lunch at a steak house. "Obama and Pelosi are out of control."

This is not the Bondi who put away murderers, or the woman who made headlines with her personal legal fight over a Hurricane Katrina rescue dog.

The Tampa native surprised friends, colleagues and even herself in December by declaring that she wanted to be Florida's next attorney general. She quit her $107,000-a-year job as a senior litigator and spokeswoman for the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office to enter the combat sport of politics.

Once she jumped in, the evolution from prosecutor to politician happened so fast and with such ideological fervor that it jolted those who knew her.

"I expected to see a more moderate candidate," said La Gaceta publisher Patrick Manteiga, echoing a common sentiment around town.

Political Pam touts herself as pro-business, pro-Second Amendment and pro-life. She talks about Lincoln and Reagan and bedrock Republican Party principles. She blasted the national Democratic leadership on the Sean Hannity Show and hobnobbed with ex-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin at a breakfast in Washington, D.C.

She even wears a necklace with elephants on it.

• • •

Maybe the new Bondi shouldn't come as much of a surprise. She is, after all, a career prosecutor who also worked for the past six years as a part-time legal expert for Fox.

And she's looking to distinguish herself in a tight Republican primary race. Go for your base, or go home.

Her strategy — guided by people who helped run campaigns for George W. Bush, Jeb Bush and John McCain — has produced some early success.

She won seven Republican and tea party straw polls around the state, and as of March had amassed $421,534 in monetary contributions. That figure put her in the middle of the GOP field, though far behind state Sens. Dan Gelber and Dave Aronberg, the Democratic contenders who entered the race last June.

A Mason-Dixon poll released this month showed Bondi trailing the lieutenant governor by just a few percentage points. She drew 10 percent support compared with the 13 percent by Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp and 5 percent by former state Health Care Secretary Holly Benson.

"She must be doing something to get to 10 percent," said Clearwater political consultant Jack Hebert. "That's nothing to flinch at."

What she's doing is traveling, nonstop. Bondi, 44, circles Florida by plane and car, wooing voters and donors, always in motion. Her days feel like sprints packed into a months-long marathon.

To win a statewide race, she needs cash. Lots of it.

On a recent Monday, in the security line for a 6:55 a.m. campaign flight to Jacksonville, she bumped into the owners of a car dealership.

"I need to send you some money," one of them told her.

"I like hearing that," Bondi said.

She also needs votes, and not just from six or 12 handpicked jurors hearing a case, but from millions of strangers with widely different lives in Pensacola, Naples and West Palm Beach.

Bondi grapples with building name recognition beyond her hometown in a huge state where sex offenders and monkeys get more attention than the race for the top legal officer.

Candidates in high-profile contests have it easier. Senate races are sexy. The governor's race, sexy. But those lower-level Cabinet positions, like the chief financial officer or agriculture commissioner? Not so much.

In the Mason-Dixon poll, more than seven in 10 people surveyed were undecided.

"It's tough running statewide," said Roger Austin, another Republican consultant. "There's a lot of disadvantages to people who haven't done it before."

Bondi is on the road weekdays and most of weekends, accompanied by campaign aides and sometimes her boyfriend, ophthalmologist Dr. Greg Henderson. She stumps at a gun show in Orlando with thousands of enthusiasts and a Republican club event in Homosassa with a few dozen people.

Her TV gig clearly has brought her notice.

"I saw you on Fox the other day!" 56-year-old Helene Robinson of Fort Lauderdale told Bondi. "I think you are terrific."

Bondi's eyes well with tears during a visit to a hospice inpatient center in Jacksonville. In South Florida, she drinks espresso to be polite, never mind the caffeine jitters. She gushes over the businesses she tours and the people she meets, deeming them all "amazing."

She is quick to hug, slow to leave.

• • •

When an executive asks why she wants to run for public office, Bondi sounds earnest.

"I want to be the best attorney general in the country," she says.

She is, she believes, the most qualified person for the job. Among the many duties, the Attorney General's Office handles criminal appeals for the very types of cases Bondi prosecuted.

The Stetson University College of Law graduate was best known in recent years as the mouthpiece of the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, the person who fielded reporters' calls and stepped in front of news cameras for interviews.

But her tenure also included years spent as a front-line attorney trying up to three cases a week and numerous trips to Tallahassee to argue against the worst offenders getting parole.

She played a prominent role in the first-degree murder trials of Adam Davis, sent to death row for killing his teenage girlfriend's mother, and Melvin Givens, convicted of fatally stabbing a local TV news director. She was part of the team that failed in 2007 to persuade jurors in Panama City to hold eight boot camp employees responsible for a troubled teen's death.

Her political experience is thin — she was just a kid when her father, Joseph Bondi, served as a Temple Terrace mayor and City Council member — but she's trying to use that to her advantage.

On the trail, she contrasts her nearly two decades as a working, functioning lawyer with her major GOP rivals' career paths. Kottkamp and Benson, who previously worked in civil trial and municipal bond law, respectively, both served as legislators before moving into their more recent Tallahassee posts.

"The role of the attorney general is your chief legal officer, not your chief politician," Bondi said.

Not surprisingly, her opponents' camps take exception to that characterization.

Kottkamp, who clerked for two federal judges, has "seen his share of courtrooms," said spokesman David Bishop. But "I've never seen an attorney general sitting in court trying a case," he said. "It is a policy position."

Benson spokeswoman Sarah Bascom took note of her candidate's chief executive experience.

"Holly Benson led two different agencies, both of which had more employees and bigger budgets than the Attorney General's Office," Bascom wrote in an e-mail. "Pam Bondi has never run an organization, and has spent her entire career working for government with little to no work experience in the private sector."

Should she get elected, Bondi said she is prepared to carry out Florida's legal challenge against what she deems to be the "terrifying" and "completely unconstitutional" federal health care law.

"I prosecute murderers," she said at the Miami Lakes luncheon. "I'd be glad to take on the federal government."

That's not the sort of talk people back home are used to hearing from Bondi. But don't discount it as campaign bluster, her former boss says.

"It's heartfelt," Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober said. "I don't think she's ever been on a platform to express these things before. But now she is."

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

Prosecutor Bondi leaves the courthouse and takes a hard right 05/28/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 31, 2010 8:24am]
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