Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

In Democratic race for attorney general, candidates offer contrast in style, experience

TALLAHASSEE — At first glance, they seem alike: Both men are politically ambitious lawyers and state senators from South Florida.

But real differences separate Dave Aronberg and Dan Gelber, who are fighting for the Democratic nomination for attorney general. The contest is one of three down-ballot statewide races likely to be decided by TV ads and obscured by high-profile free-for-alls for U.S. Senate and governor.

As Florida's chief legal officer, the attorney general oversees 475 lawyers and is expected to protect consumers from fraud and discrimination, represent the state in legal matters including death penalty appeals, and set policy as a Cabinet member on everything from open space to state investments.

For months, Aronberg and Gelber have criss-crossed the peninsula raising money, collecting endorsements and honing their messages in advance of their showdown, the Aug. 24 primary.

Gelber, 49, has a much more extensive legal background, as a federal prosecutor for nearly a decade and as counsel to a U.S. Senate committee. He was a forceful House Democratic leader who helped his party win back nine seats in 2006, while offering frequent policy alternatives to the Republican agenda. Gov. Charlie Crist credits Gelber with his decision to expand early voting in 2008, a decision seen as having favored Barack Obama's fortunes in Florida.

Gelber's prosecutorial style, with an emphasis on public corruption, was on display in a recent speech to Polk County Democrats. "You give me 400 lawyers and I will prosecute Ponzi schemes. I will prosecute public officials," Gelber told them. "I am not afraid to make enemies."

If elected, he promises to immediately sue the Legislature for failing to adequately pay for public education.

Aronberg, 38, is an affable, boyish politician who represents a more diverse Senate district than his rival. He has the backing of 10 Democratic sheriffs, some in small counties not often hospitable to Democratic candidates. He also has the support of the Fraternal Order of Police.

As a senator, Aronberg has worked on privacy and consumer issues, such as his sponsorship of laws banning hidden cameras in public — the so-called "video voyeurism" law — and a requirement that companies tell customers when personal data is compromised. A former assistant attorney general for two years in the Bob Butterworth era, Aronberg emphasizes fighting consumer fraud and protecting civil rights.

"This is my passion," Aronberg says of the office. "My model as attorney general is Bob Butterworth. He was dedicated to the job. He didn't use it as a political stepping stone."

Neither man has run statewide, and both know that legal skills alone won't decide the outcome. Other things matter, like raising enough money to pay for a last-minute barrage of TV ads in the middle of August.

"This race is going to boil down to who communicates best on television," said Gelber's top adviser, Steve Schale.

Gelber has raised slightly more money but also has spent more than Aronberg, who had about $500,000 in the bank at the start of the year, compared to Gelber's $400,000. In recent weeks Gelber has trimmed overhead, such as by cutting Schale's monthly fee from $8,000 to $5,000. Gelber said he decided to pay some consulting fees up front.

The son of Seymour Gelber, a well-known judge and mayor of Miami Beach, Gelber served eight years in the state House before he won a state Senate seat in 2008. He ran for the U.S. Senate until last June but was struggling to raise money against U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, and switched races after Crist entered the contest.

Gelber's supporters include former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, former Gov. Buddy MacKay and former USF President and Commissioner of Education Betty Castor.

Money is always a factor in statewide races, and Aronberg is so effective at raising money that even Gelber's campaign manager, Christian Ulvert, calls him a "relentless" fundraiser.

Aronberg has directed two soft-money machines: the Florida Mainstream Democrats, which aided legislative candidates, and the shuttered Citizens for Political Accountability, which raised $477,000 from an array of special interests. Nearly half of the money was given to the Democratic Party, Aronberg paid fund-raiser Joe Perry about $76,000, and $14,000 went directly to individual candidates.

The largest donor to that group was a fund controlled by Hollywood eye surgeon Alan Mendelsohn, which gave $50,000 in 2008. Mendelsohn is facing felony fraud charges.

Aronberg has been a state senator since 2002, representing an oddly shaped, moderate cross-state district that runs from West Palm Beach to Fort Myers, with almost equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, and taking in rural Glades and Hendry counties.

Gelber's political base is in Miami-Dade, the source of about half of his campaign money. Aronberg's base is in Palm Beach, making Broward, the state's biggest Democratic county, a critical battleground.

"The mood of the voters is one of anger and frustration," said Mitch Ceasar, chairman of the Broward Democratic Party. "The best candidate will be the one who does the best job describing how his life experience fits this job specifically."

Each man insists he's uniquely qualified to hold the office.

As an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami, Gelber said he oversaw 200 lawyers handling complex criminal cases.

As minority counsel to the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations for two years in the mid 1990s, Gelber worked for Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and researched and wrote extensively on terrorism issues.

Aronberg worked on civil matters — children's legal services and economic crimes — as assistant attorney general.

Former Deputy Attorney General Pete Antonacci, an Aronberg supporter, said of the candidates: "Dave is a person who has broad appeal. Sen. Gelber is a little scary. He's a tough guy, and I mean that in the most positive way. … He should run for U.S. attorney."

A Democrat has not been attorney general since 2002. When Democrat Bob Butterworth left after 16 years, he was succeeded by Republican Charlie Crist, who served one term and was succeeded by Republican Bill McCollum, who's leaving after one term to run for governor.

The winner of the Aronberg-Gelber race will face one of three Republicans in the fall: Former state Rep. Holly Benson, former Hillsborough County prosecutor Pam Bondi or Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

Dave Aronberg

Age: 38

Occupation: attorney, Greenspoon Marder, West Palm Beach

Education: Harvard, 1993; Harvard Law School, 1996

Career highlight: assistant attorney general, 1999-2000, 2001-2002

Dan Gelber

Age: 49

Occupation: attorney, Akerman Senterfitt, Miami

Education: Tufts University, 1982; University of Florida Law School, 1985

Career highlight: assistant U.S. attorney, 1986-1995

Where they differ

Issues on which Aronberg and Gelber voted differently Aronberg Gelber
Growth: Changes to growth management laws opposed by environmentalists (SB 360, 2009) Yes No
Insurance: "Consumer choice" bill would deregulate well-capitalized insurers (HB 1171, 2009)* Yes No
Self-defense: Expanded "castle doctrine" to let people shoot intruders in home (SB 436, 2005) Yes No
Telecommunications: Allowed higher phone rates, promised greater competition (SB 654, 2003) Yes No

In Democratic race for attorney general, candidates offer contrast in style, experience 01/22/10 [Last modified: Monday, January 25, 2010 7:13pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Astros rout Yankees to force Game 7 of AL Championship Series


    HOUSTON — Justin Verlander pitched seven shutout innings to outduel Luis Severino for the second time, and the Astros bats came alive in their return home as Houston routed the Yankees 7-1 Friday night and forced a decisive Game 7 in the American League Championship Series.

    The Astros’ Brian McCann, who has struggled during the ALCS, breaks a scoreless tie with an RBI double during the fifth inning off Yankees starter Luis Severino.
  2. Review: Faith Hill and Tim McGraw shower love, star power on Tampa's Amalie Arena


    Near the end of their potent new duet Break First, Tim McGraw stopped singing, and let Faith Hill's powerhouse voice take over.

    Faith Hill and Tim McGraw performed at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Oct. 20, 2017.
  3. Senate to take up AUMF debate as Trump defends reaction to Niger attack


    WASHINGTON — The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is taking up a long-awaited debate about authorizing military force against the Islamic State as President Trump comes under unprecedented public scrutiny for his treatment of dead soldiers' families, following an ambush on troops helping to fight Islamic …

  4. In fear and vigilance, a Tampa neighborhood holds its breath


    TAMPA — There was a time, not long ago, when Wayne Capaz would go for a stroll at night and Christina Rodriguez would shop whenever she wanted. Michael Fuller would go to his night job as a line cook, not too worried about his wife at home.

    More than 50 people gathered and walked in the Southeast Seminole Heights community Friday to pay respects to the victims of three shootings. The crowd took a moment of silence at the corner of 11th Street and East New Orleans where Monica Hoffa was found dead. [JONATHAN CAPRIEL  |  Times]
  5. Fennelly: What's not to like about Lightning's start?

    Lightning Strikes

    BRANDON — No one is engraving the Stanley Cup. No one has begun stuffing the league MVP ballot box for Nikita Kucherov.

    The Lightning, with a win tonight, would match the best start in franchise history, 7-1-1 in the 2003-04 Cup season.