TALLAHASSEE — When voters choose from among five candidates to be Florida's next attorney general, their decision could have a profound effect on some of the state's most highly charged issues, from gay adoption to health care reform.
Florida's unique gay adoption ban underscores how the state's chief legal officer can use the position to advance a personal philosophy while adhering to the duties of the job.
Attorney General Bill McCollum has come under fire recently for advocating the use of an expert witness who has been discredited while defending the state's ban on gay couples adopting children.
Three Republicans seeking the post — Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, former state health care secretary Holly Benson and former Hillsborough prosecutor Pam Bondi — all say they would uphold the adoption ban.
"The best home for any child is a two-parent home with a mother and a father," Benson said.
But both Democrats, state Sens. Dave Aronberg and Dan Gelber, say Florida has spent enough defending an antiquated law.
"I don't think as a lawyer I can make a straight-faced argument that the ban is constitutional," said Gelber of Miami Beach.
The challenge comes from a North Miami man who wanted to adopt two foster children living with him and his partner. A Miami judge ruled the law unconstitutional in 2008. The state's appeal is pending.
McCollum is defending the ban on behalf of the Department of Children and Families. He personally pushed to hire psychologist George Rekers as an expert witness. Rekers was found to have gone on a European vacation with a gay escort.
In public appearances, Bondi refused to say if she would take the case to the Supreme Court if the state loses the appeal. In an interview Friday, she clarified her position: "I will continue with General McCollum's appeal. If (the Supreme Court) can legally hear it, yes, I will appeal."
The Supreme Court must first agree to hear the case before any candidate can appeal.
At a Tiger Bay forum in St. Petersburg on Wednesday, Bondi said that as attorney general, she would support whatever law is on the books. At a May 18 event in Miami Lakes, she mentioned two gay friends before saying that the adoption process as a whole needs reform.
"I have friends in Tampa who are in law enforcement who have adopted from overseas, who are in a loving, committed same-sex relationship," Bondi said.
Former Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat who held the post for 16 years, said Bondi's earlier comments have some precedent.
"If the Legislature passes legislation, your first duty is to defend it," Butterworth said. "I've handled cases over the years that I didn't quite agree with, but that's not my decision."
Butterworth said he personally disagrees with the law and that judges should decide if a couple is fit for adoption. When the law was first challenged, Butterworth was the head of DCF.
He asked McCollum to defend the suit because he was focused on "turning around" an agency beset by repeated troubles and didn't want to pick a fight with the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Aronberg, of Greenacres, said the attorney general has wide discretion on appealing cases and that "we have wasted enough taxpayer money" defending the ban.
A department spokesman said Florida has spent $383,000 on defending the ban, half of which is for attorneys' fees. The other half is for general expenses, including $120,000 to Rekers.
The attorney general candidates also split on whether to continue McCollum's challenge to the new federal health care law. Republicans have said they will keep Florida as the lead plaintiff in the case, which will likely stretch well beyond November's election.
Calling the lawsuit "frivolous," Democrats said they would remove Florida from the 20 states listed as plaintiffs. McCollum spokeswoman Sandi Copes noted that even if Florida dropped out of the case, it would continue and another state would take the lead.
One issue did unite all five candidates in opposition — the ballot initiative known as Hometown Democracy, or Amendment 4. An effort to rein in unchecked growth, the amendment would place changes to a local comprehensive plan on the ballot.
The initiative faces strong opposition from business groups and the building industry. All of the candidates said it would take power away from local officials.
"It would ensure that the only changes to comprehensive plans would be development funded by expensive campaigns," Aronberg said.
The candidates also are united in supporting the death penalty.
But other issues split the candidates along party lines. Democrats support the Fair Districts amendments that say lawmakers cannot draw political districts with the intent to favor or disfavor a party or incumbent. They also argue the Legislature's companion amendment is "intentionally confusing" to voters.
Republicans oppose the citizen amendments — Nos. 5 and 6 on the ballot — but support lawmakers' Amendment 7.
"The idea that you can ever take politics out of redistricting is incredibly naive," Kottkamp said.
Most Republicans came out against the April 2007 move by Gov. Charlie Crist to simplify the process of restoring civil rights to former felons. Kottkamp did not take a position on the specific procedure, only saying he opposes "automatic restoration." Gelber and Aronberg both support the policy.
Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet and Times staff writers Colleen Jenkins and Aaron Sharockman contributed to this report. Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.