Grim Reaper, Ayala among Democrats running for Florida attorney general

Whoever wins the primary will face Republican incumbent Ashley Moody in the general election.
From left to right: Jim Lewis, Aramis Ayala and Daniel Uhlfelder are all vying in the Democratic primary race for Florida attorney general.
From left to right: Jim Lewis, Aramis Ayala and Daniel Uhlfelder are all vying in the Democratic primary race for Florida attorney general. [ AP and handout photos ]
Published Aug. 15, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — A lawyer known for dressing up as the Grim Reaper, an ex-state attorney who refused to seek the death penalty, and a former state prosecutor who defends murder suspects are vying for the Democratic nomination for attorney general.

Whoever wins the Aug. 23 primary will face an unopposed Republican incumbent Ashley Moody, who has lots of support from the state’s business and law enforcement communities. She has about $6.4 million remaining out of more than $13 million in contributions to her campaign account and political committee.

All three primary candidates say Moody is beholden to special interests because of large corporate donations and represents a far-right point of view that doesn’t reflect mainstream Florida. They are critical of her for actions such as signing onto a lawsuit seeking to overturn the 2020 presidential election and her support of some of Gov. Ron DeSantis’s culture war policies.

In contrast to Moody, they all portray themselves as defenders of justice and champions of the voiceless. They all think they have a shot at beating Moody if nominated.

Where they differ is on name recognition, the amount of money raised, and their stance on the death penalty.

Probably the best known of the three is Daniel Uhlfelder, 49, a Santa Rosa Beach “old country lawyer” with a net worth of $8.8 million who’s earned a name for himself as an outspoken critic of Gov. Ron DeSantis and his COVID-19 policies.

Related: 'Grim Reaper' Daniel Uhlfelder enters race for Florida attorney general

The Miami-born, North Florida-raised attorney earned lots of free national attention by hitting the beaches in a ghoulish Grim Reaper costume to protest the state’s pandemic policies. He even used an image of him stalking a beach as the Grim Reaper in his first campaign video.

Daniel Uhlfelder
Daniel Uhlfelder [ courtesy of Daniel Uhlfelder's campaign ]

That costume was donated to the Miami Museum of History, but he said he could resurrect it if needed.

“I certainly have the best chance” of beating Moody, he said. He’s got the social media presence, for one thing, and he’s spoken out on a broad range of issues including rising utility rates, public beach access, soaring rent, the housing crisis and homeowners’ insurance rates.

Uhlfelder has no elected experience nor has he been a prosecutor. He calls himself a fighter for people who are marginalized and would revive the attorney general’s civil rights office.

“I’m just an old country lawyer,” Uhlfelder said. “I don’t represent insurance companies or huge corporations, just people who have problems that want to be addressed.”

He also believes he can raise the money to defeat Moody.

“We’re going to need millions of dollars,” Uhlfelder said.

He’s already proven his ability to raise large sums. His political committee, Remove Ron, raised more than $900,000.

Uhlfelder’s attorney general campaign committee has raised $329,255 through Aug. 5, more than his two challengers combined, and has about $155,000 remaining. In addition, his Hold Tallahassee Accountable committee has raised about $68,000, of which about $6,300 remained.

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Windermere resident Aramis Ayala, 47, became the first Black state attorney in Florida when she was elected in 2016. She served from 2017-21.

“When it comes to what sets me apart is my experience and commitment to justice,” Ayala said.

Then-State Attorney Aramis Ayala speaks at a news conference on Sept. 23, 2019, in Orlando.
Then-State Attorney Aramis Ayala speaks at a news conference on Sept. 23, 2019, in Orlando. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

She was an assistant public defender for 10 years, making sure all accused had proper representation.

“As state attorney, I made sure the voices of all people were heard inside the office where decisions are made,” Ayala said. She’s made domestic violence part of her platform.

Some of that insight was informed by personal experience. Six months after she became state attorney, Ayala was pulled over by police. The video of the traffic stop went viral amid allegations of racial profiling, but Ayala didn’t take legal action after experts said it appeared to be a legit traffic stop that lasted only a couple of minutes.

Related: Democrat Aramis Ayala running for Florida attorney general

The biggest difference between her and her opponents is her stand on the state’s death penalty. Ayala sent shock waves through the state when she announced she would not seek the death penalty for convicted murderers.

She wouldn’t say whether being anti-death penalty would hurt her chances in a statewide election against Moody, but felt she had the momentum and support to win.

“The common thread I hear from supporters is they all say I’m a fighter,” she said.

There’s no way she can win a statewide race as anti-death penalty, Uhlfelder said.

Jim Lewis, a Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyer also running in the Democratic primary, said he’s worried how she’d handle death penalty cases if elected. “The Republican Legislature might see that as dereliction of duty and impeach her,” Lewis said. “We don’t need that.”

She is responsible for other judicial reforms such as a low-income bail fund and recommended civil citations for young first-time nonviolent offenders.

So far, she’s raised more than $120,000 between her campaign account and her political committee Justice for Florida PC, and spent all but about $22,000 through Aug. 5.

Lewis, 64, who grew up in Orlando, is a perennial candidate has run for several positions before — from state attorney general to mayor of Fort Lauderdale — and lost every race. He’s also run as a Democrat, a Republican and an independent.

He’s definitely the underdog in this race, too, with only about $20,000 raised, $15,000 of which was a loan to himself.

“I made a pledge to spend no more than $15,000 in the primary,” Lewis said.

Lewis said he has more prosecutorial experience than his opponents, serving as an assistant state attorney in Orange County, a special prosecutor to the statewide grand jury under Gov. Bob Graham, and assistant statewide prosecutor under former Attorney General Bob Butterworth.

Lewis is a well-known criminal defense lawyer in South Florida, having tried over 30 murder trials and 300 jury trials.

Jim Lewis, 2022 candidate for Florida Attorney General
Jim Lewis, 2022 candidate for Florida Attorney General [ handout ]

“We need someone who will follow the law and be pro-law enforcement, which I am,” Lewis said. “And that gives me the best chance to beat Moody, who is so far to the right, a DeSantis mouthpiece and Trump supporter.”

He will need money to beat her, which he thinks he can get if he wins the primary.

But money isn’t everything, he said.

“People know that people who collect money from special interests are beholden, and this has always been a pay-to-play state,” Lewis said.

One of his goals if he becomes attorney general is to change the law and “stop outrageous campaign contributions. Public corruption I see as my number one duty if elected.”

Meanwhile, Lewis said, he’s hitting social media hard and pressing the flesh.

“I am running a low-budget primary campaign,” he said.

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