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Butterworth turns sights on a run for state Senate

At a Florida Democratic Party fundraiser last weekend, party leaders begged Attorney General Bob Butterworth to stay in state politics and run for another position on the state Cabinet.

Butterworth, who has spent a career pondering whether to run for governor or accept appointments to state or federal courts, abruptly announced Thursday he will seek another political office this fall: a state Senate seat that covers parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Butterworth, forced out by term limits after 16 years as attorney general, showed up in the state elections office late Thursday afternoon and surprised everyone by filing papers to run for the Senate. He resigned as attorney general effective Nov. 4.

For the 59-year-old Butterworth, one of the state's most widely known politicians, a bid for the Legislature is a curious turn in a public service career that spans three decades.

Assistant state attorney, county judge and circuit judge. Broward sheriff. Executive director of the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Interim mayor of Sunrise in Broward. Attorney general.

Now, potentially a state senator in an era when Republicans control the Senate, the House and the Governor's Mansion?

"I've served at all three levels of government in the state," Butterworth said. "I thought the best place I could be at this time in my career would be the state Legislature."

To Republicans, though, Butterworth's decision to seek a Senate seat rather than run for statewide office reflects the Democratic Party's reluctance to take on the increasingly dominant GOP.

"I guess Bob Butterworth figured he wasn't going to run for governor or agriculture commissioner or chief financial officer and thought this was a spot for him," Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas said. "That's a pretty good barometer for the conditions of the Democratic Party _ that he couldn't mount a statewide campaign."

Butterworth's bid for the Senate already faces a couple of hurdles.

Elections Division chief Clay Roberts asked Butterworth on Thursday if he was aware of a provision in state elections law that says public officials have to resign from their jobs 10 days before the deadline to qualify. That deadline is at noon today.

"That's not the way I interpret the law," Butterworth responded. "If you're not going to accept my papers, tell me now. It'll be (Secretary of State) Katherine Harris refused to accept the attorney general's papers. My lawyers have very carefully researched this."

He said the 10-day law doesn't apply in this case because its intent is to assure that those who might seek the candidate's current office have time to file nomination papers. Would-be candidates for attorney general have had plenty of time, he said, because it was well-known he was being forced out by term limits.

After Butterworth left the elections office, Roberts said, "I'm not going to discuss those issues. We're going to be in court, probably."

If Butterworth wins the Senate seat, he also will have to move. He has a home that is 6 miles outside the boundaries of the Senate district. Butterworth said he would move into the district if he wins.

The district has been represented by Debby Sanderson, a Republican who is not seeking re-election. The Legislature moved the district further north during redistricting this year, and it has more Republican voters than Democrats. But Butterworth is popular among both Democrats and moderate Republicans.

Butterworth will challenge Jeff Atwater, a 44-year-old Republican who has served in the House since 2000. Atwater has raised more than $250,000, but Butterworth is a prolific fundraiser.

The attorney general's sudden move into the Senate race sparked speculation about his motivation. Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallendale Beach, called the maneuver "sort of a come down" for Butterworth, but it reflected Butterworth's commitment to improving Florida.

"I think his motivations are that he clearly wants to remain active in public service," said Mitchell Berger, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and Democratic fundraiser. "He's been involved in public service his entire life."

Butterworth, who had no desire to mount a long, expensive statewide campaign, said he decided to run for the state Senate two years ago, even as speculation swirled that he might take on Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. He said he was encouraged to run for the Senate by Democrats and moderate Republicans.

"That's really the kind of person we need to run for the Senate," said retiring Sen. Don Sullivan, R-St. Petersburg.

As attorney general, Butterworth developed a national reputation as a consumer advocate. He cracked down on unscrupulous moving companies, sued sweepstakes companies and won refunds for consumers bilked on auto leases. He battled tobacco companies and won an $11.3-billion settlement.

Butterworth said the Legislature has squandered the money from the tobacco settlement.

"Every single child in the state of Florida could have been school-ready, could have had health care," he said. "The Legislature chose to give that money away."

_ The Associated Press contributed to the report.