Florida attorney general candidates spar in lone debate

Attorney General Pam Bondi and her opponents, George Sheldon, center, and Bill Wohlsifer, participate in Monday’s debate.
Attorney General Pam Bondi and her opponents, George Sheldon, center, and Bill Wohlsifer, participate in Monday’s debate.
Published Oct. 7, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — Florida's three attorney general candidates highlighted stark differences in their views on issues ranging from Obamacare to gambling and medical marijuana during a televised debate Monday, but incumbent Pam Bondi didn't commit on the issue of the day — gay marriage.

After the U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday that it will not hear appeals from five states seeking to prevent gay marriage, Bondi hedged when asked how her office will handle a U.S. District Court judge's decision to overturn Florida's ban on same-sex marriage. The Attorney General's Office previously has defended the ban on the state and federal levels and has appealed the district judge's decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

"My office — I think it just came out less than three hours ago — will be reviewing that, see what happens next. There are a lot of other cases in the pipeline," Bondi said.

The debate, the only one scheduled for this race, was taped in Bay News 9's studio.

Democratic opponent George Sheldon said it would be best for Floridians if Bondi dropped the matter immediately.

"Government ought to get out of the business of telling people who they can love," he said, adding that Bondi has a "higher responsibility" to defend not only the Florida Constitution, but the U.S. Constitution as well. "It is now clear, with the Supreme Court's action, what that means."

Sometimes contentiously, the candidates — including Libertarian Bill Wohlsifer, a Tallahassee attorney — batted issues back and forth for an hour.

Bondi, who repeatedly said she is focused on making Florida a safe place to live and work, said she doesn't like provisions of Amendment 2, the medical marijuana initiative before voters. Wohlsifer, who said he helped write a medical marijuana bill brought before the Legislature in 2013 and 2014, said the amendment doesn't go far enough, while Sheldon decried the hysteria surrounding the measure. He zeroed in on concerns about the amendment's caregiver provision, which detractors say is too broad in its definition.

"This is no different than a caregiver for a citizen whose doctor prescribes oxycodone or doctor prescribes other kinds of things," Sheldon said. "I happen to trust the doctors of this state in terms of how they prescribe this medication."

Bondi shot back, saying, "I don't have full faith in all our doctors after shutting down the pill mills. I think we're going to have a pot clinic on every corner and that the doctors who prescribed it would have full immunity."

The Affordable Care Act was, predictably, a contentious topic, with Bondi attacking the law as bad for Floridians and blaming Sheldon, saying "he helped write the law." Sheldon said the law was drafted two years before he became acting assistant secretary for the federal Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2011. He said people don't want to return to the days of being denied insurance for pre-existing conditions or having lifetime limits on coverage.

Bondi opposes accelerated restoration of felons' rights, while Sheldon said the process should be streamlined for nonviolent offenders, a view Wohlsifer shares. All three candidates vowed to do all they could to battle public corruption, although Sheldon suggested that the attorney general should be examining the discrepancy in Gov. Rick Scott's state financial disclosures, referencing a recent Times/Herald report.

"To imply that our governor is corrupt, that's not appropriate for any candidate to say that, nor for an attorney general to say that," Bondi retorted. She cited the state's work prosecuting former Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer as proof that she is serious about rooting out public corruption.

Other issues included the state's "stand your ground" law, which Sheldon said should be examined by lawyers, law enforcement officials and citizens for "tinkering" and which Wohlsifer said needs fine-tuning. Bondi begged off, saying she is "not a lawmaker."

The candidates also disagreed on gambling — Bondi is against it, while Wohlsifer and Sheldon are for it. Sheldon said the Seminole Tribe has shown that gambling is already working in Florida, as long as the practice is highly regulated. Wohlsifer thinks gambling could bring more jobs to the state.