What does a Florida Attorney General do? Ashley Moody and Sean Shaw clash on purpose of the job they seek.

Any viewers who actually tuned in to the only televised debate between the two candidates for attorney general of Florida Tuesday night saw a stark contrast between how both candidates see the job.
Published Oct. 24, 2018|Updated Oct. 24, 2018

One candidate, Democrat Sean Shaw, believes the attorney general should be a champion for social justice, fairness and enforcing the Constitution – even when the corporations are the targets.

The other, Republican Ashley Moody, believes the attorney general is an extension of the state's law enforcement charged mainly with going after violent crime, drugs, human trafficking and elder abuse.

Any viewers who actually tuned in to the only televised debate between the two candidates for attorney general of Florida Tuesday night saw a stark contrast between how both candidates see the job.

"I won't be just the general counsel for the governor's office," said Shaw. "The attorney general's office ought to be the tip of the spear" in enforcing constitutional requirements for fairness and justice, including adequate funding for public education, open government records and medical use of marijuana.

Moody dismissed that interpretation as proof that Shaw shows "a lack of fundamental understanding" of the job and then accused her rival of seeking to use the office to "pursue a partisan agenda."

"The attorney general is charged with defending the laws of the state of Florida and I will do that without regard for my own personal opinion," she said.

To anyone who watched Sunday's CNN debate between gubernatorial candidates Andrew Gillum and Ron DeSantis, the debate was comparatively respectful and civil. But there was a clear ideological clash.

That clash, like most this election season, began with their views of President Donald Trump.

Asked about whether Trump is a good role model for young people, Moody, a supporter of Trump even though she once sued him for fraud over the failed Trump Tower Tampa project, answered yes – sort of.

She called him "a good role model for setting ambitious goals and getting things done," she said, then pivoted to talk about her family and her husband as the role model for her two sons.

"No," bluntly answered Shaw, who has previously called Trump unfit for the office.

He has said if elected, he will join a lawsuit by other Democratic attorneys general seeking to discover whether Trump has violated the constitutional prohibition on a president receiving foreign payments, and to investigate his Florida businesses for possible Russian money laundering.

Their views could matter because attorneys general in both parties have used their offices in recent years to sue over federal policies touching on everything from environmental protection to immigration.

One example: Shaw said a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act by current Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi and two dozen other Republican attorneys general is "a partisan stunt," and that he would pull Florida out of the litigation.

Moody, an ally and admirer of Bondi, said she would continue the lawsuit. "That lawsuit is about pushing back on Washington overreach," she said.

Moody said she would favor continuing the ACA's protections for health coverage for people with pre-existing health conditions, but didn't say how that would be possible if the law was thrown out.

Shaw said he would consider taking legal action to enforce a Florida constitutional provision requiring the Legislature to provide adequate funding for public schools, which he said it isn't doing now.

"If it is not the role of the attorney general to enforce Florida constitutional amendments, then I don't know what it is," he said.

But Moody responded, "You don't pick and choose and … just sue people. My opponent does not seem to understand the limits," and said the current Republican Legislature has tried to "devote resources" to education. "I would encourage them to keep doing that."

Shaw said he would refuse to defend an abortion ban if the Legislature passed one because it would violate the state Constitution's right to privacy.

"You can't just accept what the Legislature pushes at you and say that's the law, nothing I can do about it," he said.

But Moody responded, "The attorney general does not have veto power over a law passed by the Legislature."

The ideological contrasts would make it hard to pick a clear winner in a debate where both candidates appeared articulate and well-versed on the issues, and neither seemed to score a clear knockout.

Shaw pushed back against a question from Moody about his support for Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala, who doesn't believe in the death penalty and said she wouldn't seek it in a notorious cop-killer case.

But Moody went on the defensive concerning her acceptance of large campaign contributions from the private prison corporation Geo Group, and Shaw repeatedly knocked here for avoiding questions, including the Trump question and whether she believes the women who accused new Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assaults.

Shaw is finishing his first term in the state House as a Tampa representative, and previously worked as the state insurance consumer advocate under former Florida chief financial officer Alex Sink.

Shaw, trailing narrowly in the polls, probably had the most to gain in the debate by holding his own.

Shaw, 40, is the son of the late Leander Shaw, who was the first black chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.

Moody, 43, comes from a Plant City family dating back five generations but now lives in Tampa with her husband, a federal Drug Enforcement Agency agent. They have two sons.

The one-hour Shaw-Moody debate was broadcast on Bay News 9 in Tampa and Spectrum 13 News in Orlando, with two Spectrum anchors and Tampa's Mike Deeson of the First Amendment Foundation as moderators.