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Florida attorney general contest offers voters a vivid ideological choice

If you're looking for a statewide race with substantive differences between the two candidates, your search is over.

In the race for attorney general, Pam Bondi and Dan Gelber provide plenty of contrasts.

They disagree on Obamacare, education, guns and vouchers, and they seem to differ on how to utilize the assets of the office: the bully pulpit, the subpoena, the hundreds of lawyers skilled at chasing down the scammers and ripoff artists that are as much a part of the fabric of Florida as sunshine and orange juice.

Bondi, 44, the Republican, won 38 percent of the vote in a three-way race. She took only 26 counties, but ran strongest in Tampa Bay, Orlando and Jacksonville.

Gelber, 50, a Democrat, raised $1.7 million to overcome doubts about his fundraising ability. He took 59 percent of the vote against Dave Aronberg, winning 56 of 67 counties and exceeding his statewide average with 65 percent in Hillsborough and 63 percent in Pinellas.

The bay area is vital in this fight. Advantage Bondi at this point, because of her familiarity to Tampa-area TV viewers.

The name-calling began with Bondi comparing Gelber to Eliot Spitzer, who as New York attorney general garnered headlines for hounding financial crooks as the "sheriff of Wall Street."

Unfortunately, many people remember Spitzer only for the sexual escapades that forced him to resign as governor.

Bondi made it clear Friday she was focusing only on Spitzer as the crusading prosecutor.

"Unlike Mr. Gelber, I understand the difference between using the attorney general's office to responsibly protect consumers vs. attacking businesses as an activist AG in the mold of Eliot Spitzer," Bondi said.

Gelber doesn't think Bondi knows the difference. He says he's the only candidate committed to protecting consumers, and he will try to make Bondi's business ties a liability.

"It's a little troubling that right out of the box, she's letting Floridians know that she's fighting for Wall Street and the large special interests rather than fighting for them," Gelber said.

Gelber said legitimate businesses that play by the rules have nothing to fear, "but if you prey on Floridians, I'm aggressively going after everybody."

Bondi does call herself "extremely pro-business." She said Friday that's not incompatible with protecting consumers, but voters will decide that.

For his part, Gelber calls Bondi "Sarah Palin with a law degree."

Be careful, senator: Despite the polarization that follows Palin everywhere she goes, a male candidate attacking a female rival in a way that sounds personal can backfire and create sympathy for the target.

A GOP strategist who has closely watched Bondi suggests she avoid debating Gelber at all costs. "He will eat her lunch," the strategist said.

A question for Gelber is whether a Miami-Dade Democrat can win statewide against a well-financed Republican. Bob Graham did it, but it has been a while.

Independent voters could play a key role In addition, how well partisan voters respond to their marquee Senate and governor candidates will surely have an impact on who becomes our next attorney general.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Florida attorney general contest offers voters a vivid ideological choice 08/27/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 27, 2010 11:09pm]

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