Miami Herald Florida attorney general race: Beyond a common surface, a political divide

Jan 25, 2010

This article was published by the Miami Herald on January 24, 2010.

In another neck-and-neck political battle, two ambitious senators vie for the Democratic nomination for Florida attorney general.


Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

TALLAHASSEE — At first glance, they seem alike: Both men are politically ambitious lawyers and state senators from South Florida.

But real differences separate Dave Aronberg and Dan Gelber, who are fighting for the Democratic nomination for attorney general. The contest is one of three down-ballot statewide races likely to be decided by TV ads and obscured by high-profile free-for-alls for U.S. Senate and governor.

As Florida’s chief legal officer, the attorney general oversees 475 lawyers and is expected to protect consumers from fraud and discrimination, represent the state in legal matters including death penalty appeals, and set policy as a Cabinet member on everything from open space to state investments.

For months, Aronberg and Gelber have criss-crossed the peninsula raising money, collecting endorsements and honing their messages in advance of their showdown, the Aug. 24 primary.

Gelber, 49, has a much more extensive legal background, as a federal prosecutor for nearly a decade and as counsel to a U.S. Senate committee. He was a forceful House Democratic leader who helped his party win back nine seats in 2006, while offering frequent policy alternatives to the Republican agenda. Gov. Charlie Crist credits Gelber with his decision to expand early voting in 2008, a decision seen as having favored Barack Obama’s fortunes in Florida.

Gelber’s prosecutorial style, with an emphasis on public corruption, was on display in a recent speech to Polk County Democrats. “You give me 400 lawyers and I will prosecute Ponzi schemes. I will prosecute public officials,” Gelber told them. “I am not afraid to make enemies.”

If elected, he promises to immediately sue the Legislature for failing to adequately pay for public education.

Aronberg, 38, is an affable, boyish politician who represents a more diverse Senate district than his rival. He has the backing of 10 Democratic sheriffs, some in small counties not often hospitable to Democratic candidates. He also has the support of the Fraternal Order of Police.

As a senator, Aronberg has worked on privacy and consumer issues, such as his sponsorship of laws banning hidden cameras in public — the so-called “video voyeurism” law — and a requirement that companies tell customers when personal data is compromised. A former assistant attorney general for two years in the Bob Butterworth era, Aronberg emphasizes fighting consumer fraud and protecting civil rights.

“This is my passion,” Aronberg says of the office. “My model as attorney general is Bob Butterworth. He was dedicated to the job. He didn’t use it as a political stepping stone.”

Neither man has run statewide, and both know that legal skills alone won’t decide the outcome. Other things matter, like raising enough money to pay for a last-minute barrage of TV ads in the middle of August.

“This race is going to boil down to who communicates best on television,” said Gelber’s top adviser, Steve Schale.

Gelber has raised slightly more money but also has spent more than Aronberg, who had about $500,000 in the bank at the start of the year, compared to Gelber’s $400,000. In recent weeks Gelber has trimmed overhead, such as by cutting Schale’s monthly fee from $8,000 to $5,000. Gelber said he decided to pay some consulting fees up front.

The son of Seymour Gelber, a well-known judge and mayor of Miami Beach, Gelber served eight years in the state House before he won a state Senate seat in 2008. He ran for the U.S. Senate until last June but was struggling to raise money against U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, and switched races after Crist entered the contest.

Gelber’s supporters include former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, former Gov. Buddy MacKay and former USF President and Commissioner of Education Betty Castor.

Money is always a factor in statewide races, and Aronberg is so effective at raising money that even Gelber’s campaign manager, Christian Ulvert, calls him a “relentless” fundraiser.

Aronberg has directed two soft-money machines: the Florida Mainstream Democrats, which aided legislative candidates, and the shuttered Citizens for Political Accountability, which raised $477,000 from an array of special interests. Nearly half of the money was given to the Democratic Party, Aronberg paid fundraiser Joe Perry about $76,000, and $14,000 went directly to individual candidates.

The largest donor to that group was a fund controlled by Hollywood eye surgeon Alan Mendelsohn, which gave $50,000 in 2008. Mendelsohn is facing felony fraud charges.

Aronberg has been a state senator since 2002, representing an oddly shaped, moderate cross-state district that runs from West Palm Beach to Fort Myers, with almost equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, and taking in rural Glades and Hendry counties.

Gelber’s political base is in Miami-Dade, the source of about half of his campaign money. Aronberg’s base is in Palm Beach, making Broward, the state’s biggest Democratic county, a critical battleground.

“The mood of the voters is one of anger and frustration,” said Mitch Ceasar, chairman of the Broward Democratic Party. “The best candidate will be the one who does the best job describing how his life experience fits this job specifically.”

Each man insists he’s uniquely qualified to hold the office.

As an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami, Gelber said he oversaw 200 lawyers handling complex criminal cases.

As minority counsel to the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations for two years in the mid 1990s, Gelber worked for Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and researched and wrote extensively on terrorism issues.

Aronberg worked on civil matters — children’s legal services and economic crimes — as assistant attorney general.

Former Deputy Attorney General Pete Antonacci, an Aronberg supporter, said of the candidates: “Dave is a person who has broad appeal. Sen. Gelber is a little scary. He’s a tough guy, and I mean that in the most positive way. He should run for U.S. attorney.”

A Democrat has not been attorney general since 2002. When Democrat Bob Butterworth left after 16 years, he was succeeded by Republican Charlie Crist, who served one term and was succeeded by Republican Bill McCollum.

The winner of the Aronberg-Gelber race will face one of three Republicans in the fall: Former state Rep. Holly Benson, former Hillsborough County prosecutor Pam Bondi or Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp.