Bondi elusive as gay marriage becomes legal in Florida

Pam Bondi, center, is sworn in to another four year-term as Florida’s attorney general on Tuesday in Tallahassee.
Pam Bondi, center, is sworn in to another four year-term as Florida’s attorney general on Tuesday in Tallahassee.
Published Jan. 10, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — As history unfolded this week, with hundreds of gay couples marrying across Florida for the first time, the most crucial player in the long-running legal drama was missing from action.

Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has become the most visible supporter of the gay rights ban, dropped out of public view for much of the week, barring reporters from one inaugural celebration while skipping another event where they awaited her.

When she did field questions minutes after her second swearing-in, she said she did not know what would happen with the state's appeal in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

Her elusiveness on the topic was out of step not only with the immediacy of the moment, but also with more definitive responses from other Republicans who concluded the legal battle was over, or, like Sen. Marco Rubio, that the fight should continue.

That Bondi, the state's top legal official, said little on the issue in a week when she was sworn into office for another four years drew flak from her critics as well as those who support the ban.

"Not a peep out of our attorney general on the subject," a Milton resident who supported the ban wrote in a Jan. 6 email to her office. "I do not know what is up with you."

Since Dec. 1, Bondi's office has received about 140 emails on gay marriage, with three out of four criticizing her actions to uphold the ban. Some compare her to Southern segregationists of the civil rights era, such as former Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

"Do you recall seeing pictures of Gov. Wallace blocking the school doors so black children couldn't enter?" an Ocoee resident wrote in a Dec. 16 email. "He was on the wrong side of history. So are you."

By the time Bondi attended a private celebration Monday night at the exclusive Governor's Club, news that Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel had allowed gay couples to marry in Miami-Dade County had broke. The rest of the state was hours away from following suit.

All her office would provide about plans on the appeal was: "The judge has ruled, and we wish these couples the best."

Bondi's campaign shielded her from reporters that night by barring them from entering the Governor's Club. Spokesman Trey Stapleton said there wasn't enough space, even though guests were entering and leaving throughout the event.

Nevertheless, Bondi's celebratory speech to the crowd of supporters could be heard from the street. It was brief, touching on a new initiative to combat cyberbullying and touting prior efforts on fighting drugs and consumer fraud, and supporting businesses.

As a reporter waited outside to talk to her, Bondi left the club via a back door. She'd be available at an inaugural prayer breakfast Tuesday morning, Stapleton said.

That event came and went with no Bondi, the only Cabinet member to skip it.

When contacted afterward, Stapleton explained that Bondi had a sick family member.

But she did attend her own inauguration 90 minutes later on the steps of the Old Capitol.

Escorted by her brother, Brad, Bondi wore a salmon-colored dress suit and smiled broadly as she took the oath of office.

No mention was made of gay marriage during the inauguration. It was held across the street from the Leon County Courthouse, where three hours earlier gay couples began signing their applications for marriage licenses. Gov. Rick Scott, who has said it's up to Bondi to decide what to do on the issue, didn't mention the topic in his speech.

There was no avoiding reporters when Bondi walked back to her office with an entourage of friends, family and staff members.

"My solicitor general is looking at it," Bondi said. "And we're still hopeful that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case."

She said she didn't know when her office would make a determination or what exactly needed to be reviewed. Other Republican attorneys general from states such as South Carolina and Wisconsin had dropped their appeals. Why not Florida?

Bondi wouldn't say.

Her entourage escorted her to a side door in the Capitol where only family and her friends were allowed to accompany her.

Three hours later, she attended one more inaugural event, at which she again made no mention of gay marriage. Her schedule the rest of the week included only one public event.

Bondi's silence spoke volumes, said Nadine Smith, executive director of the LGBT rights group Equality Florida.

"Loving couples getting married across Florida overshadowed the inauguration," Smith said. "It was poetry."

But some supporters of the ban said it wasn't her words but her actions that mattered.

John Stemberger, director of the Florida Family Policy Council, led the effort to get the ban on the 2008 ballot. He helped organize the prayer breakfast that Bondi missed, but he said he didn't notice her absence.

Stemberger had supported one of her rivals in the 2010 GOP primary because he didn't think Bondi was a true conservative.

"I was wrong about Pam Bondi," Stemberger said. "I've been pleasantly surprised by how aggressively she's handled it. I thought she would have been weaker. She definitely has a future in the Republican Party."