Fla. Attorney General Race Has Spill Suits at Stake

August 17, 2010

With billions at stake over Gulf oil damage claims and a pending lawsuit over new federal health care laws, the next attorney general Florida voters choose may be their most influential in years.

But there’s no clear front runner among the three conservative Republicans and two Democrats who have struggled to distinguish themselves from one another.

Republicans Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, Holly Benson and Pam Bondi are aligned in their support of gun rights, tougher immigration laws and calls to repeal President Barack Obama’s healthcare program. The two Democrats, state senators Dave Aronberg and Dan Gelber, are focused on rooting out public corruption and Medicare fraud.

“There’s going to be a lot of last-minute deciders,” said Susan Mcmanus, a University of South Florida political scientist.

With a slate of credible candidates, she said, voters likely will base their decisions on “gut feelings” and “perceptions of who could move up the chain politically after leaving the AG’s office.”

Current Attorney General Bill McCollum, in fact, is leaving the post to seek the governor’s office. Ahead of the Aug. 24 primary, he has helped fire up the immigration debate in Florida by declaring his support for a crackdown on illegal immigrants he says would be tougher than Arizona’s effort, but better defined and fairer.

Kottkamp, Benson and Bondi have said they back Arizona’s law, and they also support McCollum’s legal effort to block the federal healthcare program.

As lieutenant governor, the 49-year-old Kottkamp may be the best known candidate, but his relationship with Gov. Charlie Crist may sour Republicans who see the newly independent Crist as a party deserter. Kottkamp has downplayed the link, saying the two haven’t spoken in months, and he has endorsed conservative Republican Marco Rubio, the former state House speaker who is challenging Crist for Florida’s vacant U.S. Senate seat.

Kottkamp’s image also took a hit last year over his repeated use of a state plane for personal travel for himself and his family. He had to reimburse the state nearly $13,000 after news reports revealed his wife and son had made more than two dozen flights.

Bondi and Benson are vying to become the state’s first female attorney general.

Bondi, a former Tampa prosecutor and frequent commentator on Fox News, is trying to ride a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment. Bondi, 44, says she’s spent her career prosecuting, not politicking. Among her high-profile convictions are those of Adam Davis, who is on death row for helping his teen girlfriend kill her mother in 1998, and former major league pitcher Dwight Gooden, who was hit with a yearlong sentence for violating probation by using cocaine.

Benson, a former state House member and municipal bond lawyer, is touting her management experience, having run two state agencies under Crist. She oversaw more than 1,600 employees for the Agency for Health Care Administration and also ran the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The 39-year-old says small business is stifled by excessive regulation. She intends to reduce red tape, limit frivolous lawsuits and enact tougher anti-fraud laws.

For the Democrats, the attorney general’s vacancy may be the best chance for them to penetrate the Florida cabinet this election. Democrat Alex Sink is leaving her position as chief financial officer to run for governor.

Aronberg, of Palm Beach County, said the position of the state’s top lawyer has become too political and he intends to return its focus to public safety and consumer protection. During his seven years in the state senate, Aronberg touts his record of saving taxpayer dollars as part of a Medicaid task force and leading efforts to win federal funding for restoration of the Everglades.

He has criticized his opponent, Gelber, over his ties to Akerman Senterfitt, the law firm representing oil giant BP. Gelber resigned from the firm in June, but Aronberg said the relationship could still hurt Gelber’s ability to seek claims against BP if he were elected.

And while Gelber initially campaigned for the vacant U.S. Senate seat, Aronberg, a former assistant attorney general under Bob Butterworth, said the attorney general’s job is his “passion,” not a stepping stone to other political aspirations.

Gelber, who was elected to the state Senate in 2008 after eight years in the House, served as chief counsel and staff director for the U.S. Senate’s investigations committee, focusing mainly on terrorism and domestic security.

The Miami Beach resident says he’d establish a public corruption task force and has personal experience from prosecuting corrupt public officials. He called Florida ground zero for mortgage fraud, Ponzi schemes and identity theft and promised to create an investment fraud unit to crack down on white collar crime.

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