Democratic AG Hopefuls Engage in Friendly Debate

03/29/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Today the two Democratic attorney general (AG) candidates debated at a Tiger Bay Club meeting in Feather Sound. The two mostly steered clear of their differences in favor of a common enemy: Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum.

In his introductory speech, state Sen. Dan Gelber told the crowd that if they were looking for a debate peppered with personal attacks, they might want to look elsewhere.

If you came here looking for a debate about back waxing and haircuts, and who hugged who, you're not going to get it.

He was, of course, referring to GOP U.S. Senate hopefuls Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio, who have been engaging in campaigns laden with character assaults on one another. The two state senators didn’t scour one another’s record. Instead, AG hopefuls Dan Gelber and Dave Aronberg, who is also a state senator, decried past and present Republican attorneys general, who they say have not been doing their job. Aronberg said it’s gotten so bad that the purpose of the cabinet position has been lost on many Floridians.

People don't even know nowadays what the attorney general's office does. When I go around the state, and I tell them I'm running for attorney general, I get the question, “Oh, aren't you the guy who puts those warning labels on cigarette packages?” That's the surgeon general!

Both senators say that among the most egregious examples of recent AG missteps is current Attorney General Bill McCollum’s lawsuit against the federal government. It is over the supposed unconstitutionality of the health care overhaul that President Obama signed into law last week. Gelber said McCollum should be focusing his efforts elsewhere.

To me, an attorney general who thinks it's his job to spend every single day in a frivolous lawsuit directing the attention of his office—like there's not enough pill mills, and there's not enough gangs in town, that he can spend his time doing this. It's clearly nothing other than a political attempt to advance his gubernatorial campaign, and it's wrong-headed.

Aronberg, who is the youngest member of the Florida Senate, said he would bring an approach to the office similar to that of Democratic former AG Bob Butterworth, who is Aronberg’s former mentor. Among key things he’d like to tackle is the fraud that many see as one of Florida’s identifying characteristics.

Every time you open up a newspaper, the consumer fraud that you read about is based in Florida. Bernie Madoff, Palm Beach County; Scott Rothstein, Broward County; Allen Stanford, Dade County; Art Nadel, Sarasota; Lou Pearlman, Orlando. Is this a coincidence? It's because we have the welcome mat outside our borders for con artists. We've had attorneys general who have decided to take this once-great office and use it to promote their own political careers, rather than doing what the office needs to be doing, which is public safety and consumer protection. And if the attorney general is not doing those two things, who's going to do it?

He said another is prescription drug abuse, and noted that there are more so-called “pain clinics” in Broward County than there are McDonald’s restaurants and Walmart stores combined.

Right now, there are three times the number of people who die from prescription drug addictions than illegal drug abuse. And yet, the attorney general has focused elsewhere.

Gelber said he has also seen this firsthand, and that widespread abuse of prescription painkillers is a mar on the state.

People come to Florida to get these drugs, because they are given out so freely. It is a horrible thing. I've prosecuted DEA-related cases, with DEA numbers at issue as a prosecutor. I've dealt with the issue for 10 years; you see lives actually lost, so many lives lost, simply because of our failure to rein in what I think has become—and it's mostly Oxycontin, but it's other drugs as well—one of the, a real stain on our state right now.

Gelber said he most wants to tackle an education system that he says is woefully inadequate. He called Senate Bill Six, a bill passed last week that allows schools to fire teachers over low student test scores, the worst thing he’s ever seen. He said the first thing he plans to do if elected is sue the state over what he says is a failure to adequately fund education, as the state constitution now mandates. He said that, unlike federal health care legislation, public education is the AG’s business.

I went down to Bill McCollum's office; I stood in front of him, and I said, “Listen, all of the board of education, all of the Republican appointees, have said our public school system is not constitutionally being funded. You have to sue on that behalf.” And my first day as attorney general, I will walk to the capital; I will tell the Senate president and the speaker of the House that they have to fund public education adequately, and comport with our constitution.

Aronberg said he agrees with his opponent, but that he wouldn’t file a lawsuit. He said this is because a similar lawsuit was filed by numerous Florida families last year.

If you want to undermine the current lawsuit, that was filed by parents throughout the state, that says that we are not adequately funding public education—if you want to undermine that lawsuit, then file a competing lawsuit. The job of the AG is not to compete with a lawsuit that's already been filed; the job of the AG is to support that existing lawsuit. I met with the parents who filed that lawsuit; I met them two days ago. They do not want the AG to compete with them; they want the AG to support them. And that's what I'll do as AG. I'll support them.

While Aronberg and Gelber kept the barbs at bay, they haven’t agreed on everything. Last year, Aronberg supported a bill that gave tax credits to businesses that donated to scholarship programs providing school vouchers to low-income students. Gelber didn’t. They also have expressed different takes on campaign finance. The Democratic primary is in August. The winner of that contest will face a Republican candidate from a pool that includes Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, Pam Bondi, and Jim Lewis.

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