Four AG Candidates Clash at Forum on Arizona Law and Health-Care Laws

Aug 4, 2010

Kevin Derby

Sunshine State News

With less than three weeks until the primaries, four of the six attorney general candidates compared their passion, defined their positions on immigration law and generally pitched their strengths to become the voice of the law in Florida for the next four years.

Tuesday night's candidates forum, attended largely by attorneys, was sponsored by the Tallahassee Bar Association.

With polls showing most Republicans and Democrats are undecided and all attorney general candidates are relatively unknown, the stakes couldn't be higher for two Democrats and three Republicans locked in close primary contests.


Both of the Democratic candidates in the race, Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach and Sen. Dave Aronberg of Greenacres, attended the event. So did former Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Holly Benson, who is running for the Republican nomination. Former Assistant State Attorney Jim Lewis, an independent, was also in attendance.


However, Benson’s two rivals for the Republican nod, Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp and former Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi, did not attend. Bondi sent in her place Allison DeFoor, a former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Florida who ran for lieutenant governor under Bob Martinez in 1990. With no representative on hand for the Kottkamp campaign, an empty chair was set up for the lieutenant governor. 

Lewis kicked things off, talking about his experience, saying he believes his independent campaign willd do well in this election cycle.


“Who thought that an independent had a chance to win a statewide race?” asked Lewis. He invoked the U.S. Senate campaign of Gov. Charlie Crist and the gubernatorial bid of Bud Chiles as proof that Floridians were tired of politics as usual. “These are new times.”

Gelber was the second candidate to speak, focusing on his family’s background in public service as prosecutors and teachers. He also spoke about his experience as an attorney, as a staffer in the U.S. Senate specializing in investigating terrorism and in the Legislature. 

Gelber said his breadth of experience would allow him to hit the ground running if he was elected. “You need someone on the first day who will respect the awesome power of the office,” said Gelber.  

Speaking for Bondi, DeFoor said that every candidate in the race is qualified, but his candidate is helped by her almost two decades as a prosecutor. DeFoor said Bondi is the best candidate because she isn't connected to Tallahassee, unlike her two Republican rivals.

“There is a difference of perspective,” insisted DeFoor who added that Bondi’s years prosecuting in Tampa have prepared her to serve as state attorney general. 

Supporting Attorney General Bill McCollum’s constitutional challenge to new federal health-care laws backed by President Barack Obama, Benson called the new measures “the slippery slope toward socialized medicine” and said she will continue the fight against it. Benson said she is proud to call herself a conservative, adding she is part of a generation of young Republicans including U.S Senate candidate Marco Rubio and U.S Rep. Adam Putnam, who is running for commissioner of agriculture and consumer services.


“We are truly at a crossroads in American history,” said Benson. “Will we take the path of more government or more freedom?”


Aronberg talked about his experience under former Attorney General Bob Butterworth and said he hopes to follow that example, if elected. Aronberg praised Butterworth for wanting to stay as attorney general instead of running for higher office -- a shot at McCollum and Crist who used the position to try to move up the political ladder. Aronberg also attacked McCollum for his legal challenge to the health-care laws, insisting it is a political stunt.

“This is not a stepping stone for me,” said Aronberg. “This is my passion.”

In their closing remarks, the candidates mixed it up a little, though Gelber and Aronberg, whose race has grown more acrimonious in recent weeks, remained cordial.

Instead of focusing on his Democratic rival, Gelber turned his fire to Benson’s remarks and attacked McCollum’s lawsuit.

“This is a frivolous lawsuit being used to advance a candidate for governor and not the interests of the people of this state,” said Gelber.

Benson countered by arguing that the new health-care laws will cripple Florida’s Medicaid system, adding 1.7 million Floridians to the program. She also said that the laws will only increase the state’s 12 percent unemployment, which is above the national average.

The candidates took questions on the judiciary’s funding, campaign finance and the need for lawyers in the Attorney General’s Office to handle more pro-bono cases.

The candidates also talked about Arizona’s immigration laws and whether such measures are needed in the Sunshine State. Some legislators have kicked around  proposals to enact similar laws and McCollum filed an amicus brief defending the Arizona laws.

Calling McCollum’s amicus brief a “political lawsuit,” Gelber said he opposes bringing such measures to Florida. “Our police should be protecting people from criminals and not enforcing immigration laws,” he said.

Aronberg agreed, saying he opposes the Arizona measures and adding that the federal government needs to take up reforming immigration laws. “I understand the frustration,” said Aronberg. “The federal government has to act.”

While Benson agreed with Aronberg about the need for the federal government to act, she said that she supports states like Arizona that are moving forward in the meantime to enforce immigration laws. “I believe the states need to act and I do support the Arizona law,” said Benson.

Lewis opposed the Arizona law. “We do not need it here in Florida,” he said, noting that it will undermine public confidence in the state police. He added that he thinks the U.S. Border Patrol is doing a good job enforcing the law in Florida. 

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