PNJ picks: attorney general

Aug 11, 2010

Pensacola News Journal Editorial Board

Pensacola News Journal

As the chief law enforcement officer for the state of Florida, the attorney general carries a heavy responsibility — even if for long periods of time state residents never hear his or her name.

But what Florida needs is an attorney general who wants to do the job and back away from the politicized office it has become. Gov. Charlie Crist used the office as his leapfrog to the governor's mansion, and current officeholder Bill McCollum is following suit.

Our picks:

Republican: Holly Benson.

In a weak Republican field, we'll go with the hometown candidate who promises to keep an eye on Panhandle interests in an age when politicians in Tallahassee have a hard time remembering Florida extends west of the capital city.

With much of the state, especially South Florida, posturing to cash in on the oil spill — whether or not a drop of oil ever hits their beaches — it will be important for those in Tallahassee to remember that it was Northwest Florida that bore the brunt of the impact, both economically and environmentally.

There doesn't seem to be much difference among the three GOP candidates on the issues. But we like Benson's experience heading complex government agencies, including the Department of Business and Professional Regulation and the Agency for Health Care Administration, both which give her experience dealing with fraud.

Certainly not sexy agencies, but Benson showed a willingness to take them on after serving as a member of the House. And it was while in the House that she took on other unglamorous but crucial jobs, such as organizing a new system of court funding. In large part she shouldered burdens other legislators ducked in order to get support for important projects here, especially the relocation of the Main Street Wastewater Treatment Plant.

We also like Benson's unquestioned integrity and honesty, and believe she would approach the job in a manner that puts politics last.

Democrat: Dan Gelber.

Gelber, a state senator from Miami, is the most impressive statewide candidate we have seen in any race. He is the most qualified attorney general candidate in some time.

A prominent state senator from Miami Beach, strong on criminal justice matters, he spent a decade as a federal prosecutor, where he managed a large staff of lawyers; and he served as chief counsel and staff director for the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, with a focus on investigating terrorists.

Both he and opponent Dave Aronberg, another state senator and frequent campaigner in the Panhandle, promise to bring the Attorney General's Office back to the business of representing the interests of Florida residents and out of the partisan political arena that McCollum took it to in seeking headlines to support his run for governor.

Gelber said consumer protection — aimed at prosecuting fraud — should be the office's primary mission. "You do it by prosecuting cases that change behavior" by criminals, he said. With Florida a hotbed of health care and mortgage fraud, there's plenty to do.

He also stresses the need for leadership that convinces the office's employees that what they are doing is critically important to Florida — a mission that is lost when the attorney general is more focused on a political agenda.

Gelber envisions "a huge role" for the attorney general on the oil spill to ensure that people with valid claims are not lost in the shuffle or forced to hire lawyers. "You shouldn't have to pay a lawyer 20 percent of your compensation; that's not being made whole."

He would establish legal services offices to help people work through the system. And he stresses the importance of not letting litigation by the state against BP be heard in Texas or Louisiana, where oil interests are likely to get a sympathetic hearing.

And he said the attorney general should be pushing to keep the state ahead of Florida's endemic Medicaid fraud — a sophisticated, constantly evolving crime — and push the Legislature to adequately fund prosecution, which in the past has always provided a net gain to taxpayers.

Special Message from Dan Gelber's "Little Brother"- Travis Thomas

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Political advertisement paid for and approved by Dan Gelber.