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Florida’s Ashley Moody disavows politics, but fights Trump’s battles

The state attorney general joined lawsuits backing Trump’s election challenge. What will it mean for the Republican rising star?

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody has made clear her stance on mixing politics with the job of being the state’s top legal officer.

Not me, she said.

“In my term as attorney general, I will never do the bidding of anyone except the people of the state of Florida,” Moody, a former Tampa judge, told Politico after her first year in office.

But in recent months, Moody put that office’s legal muscle behind President Donald Trump’s insistence that the election was stolen from him. This included joining a lawsuit from the Texas attorney general alleging voter irregularities in four states — none of them Florida.

Criticism from citizens, editorial writers and even a former Florida Supreme Court justice was swift. A letter to the editor in the Tampa Bay Times asked if Moody was trying to “out-Bondi” her predecessor, Pam Bondi, a Trump insider who has preached his voter fraud claims on the national stage.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump walks in the rain with Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi  at a campaign rally in Tampa. [Associated Press]
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump walks in the rain with Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi at a campaign rally in Tampa. [Associated Press]

Then came the Jan. 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol that left a police officer and four others dead. On the eve of that uprising, a conservative Republican group sent out robocalls urging Trump allies to come to Washington and “fight” Congress on Trump’s behalf. Moody’s official state website had touted her appointment to the board of directors of that group, a nonprofit arm of the Republican Attorneys General Association called the Rule of Law Defense Fund. Following the violence in Washington, that reference was scrubbed from her online biography, and a Moody spokeswoman told the Times she left the organization last year.

How might all of this play out politically for Moody, an ambitious and quietly rising player in the Republican Party who some say will likely one day run for Congress or governor?

When speculation starts about the next gubernatorial line-up, “Ashley’s name is going to be near or at the top of that list,” said Adam Goodman, a national Republican media consultant with deep ties to Florida. “I think she’s an emerging star.”

Moody’s office declined requests for an interview for this story.

°°°

Moody, 45, has been making headlines since she was 17.

In her hometown of Plant City, east of Tampa, she waved to the crowds in a glittery crown as Strawberry Festival queen, a tradition since 1930.

Strawberry Festival queen Ashley Brooke Moody waves to the crowds during the parade in Plant City in 1993.
Strawberry Festival queen Ashley Brooke Moody waves to the crowds during the parade in Plant City in 1993. [ AP ]

The Moody family stretches back five generations in Plant City, where Moreau Estes Moody opened a pharmacy in 1891 and its first bank in 1902. Moodys have been mayors, bank presidents, politicians and judges.

Those legal roots go deep. Her late grandfather was a Hillsborough County circuit judge and state legislator. Her father, James Moody Jr., is a longtime federal judge in Tampa. Her mother, Carol Moody, has for long been a lawyer with Bay Area Legal Services, which provides free aid to the poor. And her brother, James S. “Jamey” Moody III, was appointed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to be a county court judge last year.

“The whole family has always been highly intellectual, bright and scholarly and really committed to public service,” said John Dicks, a former three-time Plant City mayor whose sons Ashley Moody babysat.

As a law school student, Moody switched her political party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. She said she made the change once she was old enough to form her own political principles.

Her ascent was steady and purposeful: degrees from the University of Florida and Stetson University College of Law, an internship with the American Bar Association president, a commercial litigation job at Holland & Knight — where she was the two-time female champion in the firm’s chicken wing eating contest — and a stint as a federal prosecutor handling drug, firearm and fraud cases.

At 31, Moody ran for circuit court judge. Critics questioned her lack of experience, but she won 60 percent of the vote and became the youngest judge in the state.

“She’s ambitious and determined and has been very successful,” said Dicks. “I hold her in high regard, even though I disagree with the positions she sometimes takes.”

Moody married Drug Enforcement Administration agent Justin Duralia. They have two sons.

After more than a decade on the bench, she quit in 2017 to run for attorney general.

“I call her the Energizer Bunny,” her father, the federal judge, told the Times then. “If anybody can do it, she can.”

“I’m a prosecutor, not a politician,” her ads said.

Moody was enthusiastically anointed by Bondi, who later became part of Trump’s impeachment defense team. On the campaign trail, Moody expressed her own “wholehearted support” for Trump.

Pam Bondi congratulates Ashley Moody during Moody's election watch party in Tampa in 2018.
Pam Bondi congratulates Ashley Moody during Moody's election watch party in Tampa in 2018. [ BRONTE WITTPENN | TIMES ]

A columnist for the Palm Beach Post later wrote that Moody “was supposed to be a breath of fresh air.” Unlike Bondi, she was not a frequent TV commentator on Fox News. But she would eventually face some of the same sharp criticisms accusing her of playing politics with the office.

“I write to express my extreme disappointment in your decision to join in the meritless attack on our country’s Constitution and democracy,” Charles T. Wells wrote to Moody after she joined the short-lived Texas lawsuit in December. Wells served on the Florida Supreme Court, including as its chief justice, before he retired in 2009.

Moody’s history as a judge, and the impartiality required of that job, seemed to especially resonate.

Ashley Moody when she was a Hillsborough County circuit judge. [TIMES]
Ashley Moody when she was a Hillsborough County circuit judge. [TIMES]

“A former judge should know better,” said Dan Gelber, a former federal prosecutor and state lawmaker who ran unsuccessfully against Bondi and is the mayor of Miami Beach. “You ought not be putting the full force of the state of Florida into an effort to overturn the popular vote and the popular vote of other states.”

Manuel Menendez Jr., Hillsborough’s chief judge when Moody took the bench, said her good reputation as a federal prosecutor turned out to be deserved. But her decision to get involved in those presidential election matters as attorney general gave him pause.

“I’m not just a tad disappointed, I’m extremely disappointed,” said Menendez, now retired. “And I’m assuming it was done under extreme pressure.”

“Obviously, it plays well to the base of her party,” said Gelber.

A recent political cartoon pictured Moody in a red MAGA ballcap hefting the scales of justice marked “left” and “right,” with the “right” side three times as big and sagging heavily. “Stop the steal!” says the cartooned Moody.

“Recall or Resign ...@AGAshleyMoody is unfit to serve in a law enforcement position!” tweeted the anti-Trump Republican organization The Lincoln Project after the Times reported Moody’s connection to the group that robocalled Trump supporters ahead of the Washington riot.

Moody has defended her legal actions on Trump’s behalf.

In December, she told reporters that having the U.S. Supreme Court review the Texas lawsuit “would bring trust and faith in our electoral process, not just for this election but for future elections.” According to a Politico report, she said she joined with other states in filing the amicus brief without the urging of anyone from the president’s campaign or from elected officials.

It wasn’t the first time she aligned her office with Trump’s interests. Last year, Moody joined more than a dozen Republican attorneys general in asking a federal judge to allow the U.S. Department of Justice to drop its case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

The year before, she pushed for the U.S. Census to include a question asking whether the respondent was an American citizen — a question that ultimately wasn’t included.

Moody’s frequent news releases typically advise seniors on how to avoid getting scammed or report on her office shutting down a diploma mill or sham charity. Her week-in-review release did not mention joining efforts to challenge the election of Joe Biden.

The news in those releases is how much of the public knows Moody, said Susan MacManus, retired professor of political science at the University of South Florida.

“She’s very, very good at filing suits and going after money that Florida’s owed from businesses,” MacManus said. “She’s very, very good at informing people on scams and prosecuting ... I think people probably know her more for those kinds of things than what she’s doing in D.C.”

Trump’s role as a post-presidential kingmaker — and also potential destroyer of political careers — seemed all but assured. But after the violent uprising in Washington, that looks less certain. How will Moody’s support for Trump influence what’s next for her?

Opinions vary.

“People that were incredibly supportive of the president and really went out their way to support his division and rhetoric are going to have a hard time shaking that off,” said Ana Cruz, a political strategist in Tampa and Washington. “Because Democrats are going to remind voters.”

Goodman, the Republican media consultant, said Moody’s political story “is yet to be written.”

“You may disagree with her philosophically, but you can’t question her credentials.” Goodman said. “She’s smart as hell.”

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