State Politics

Florida AG candidates spar in lone debate

Pam Bondi, attorney general
Pam Bondi, attorney general

Florida’s three attorney general candidates highlighted stark differences in their views on issues ranging from Obamacare to gambling and medical marijuana during a televised debate Monday, but incumbent Pam Bondi didn’t commit on the issue of the day — gay marriage.

After the Supreme Court announced it would not hear appeals from five states seeking to prevent gay marriage, Bondi hedged when asked how her office will handle a U.S. District Court judge’s decision to overturn Florida’s ban on same-sex marriages. The attorney general’s office previously has defended the ban on the state and federal level, and has appealed the district court’s decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

“My office, I think it just came out less than three hours ago, will be reviewing that, see what happens next. There are a lot of other cases in the pipeline,” Bondi said. The debate, the only one scheduled for this race, was taped in Bay News 9’s studio.

Democratic opponent George Sheldon said it would be best for Floridians if Bondi dropped the matter immediately.

“Government ought to get out of the business of telling people who they can love,” he said, adding that Bondi has a “higher responsibility” to defend not only the Florida Constitution, but the U.S. Constitution, as well. “It is now clear, with the Supreme Court’s action, what that means.”

Sometimes contentiously, the candidates batted issues back and forth for an hour, including Libertarian Bill Wohlsifer, a Tallahassee attorney.

Bondi, who repeatedly stressed she was focused on making Florida a safe place to live and work, said she didn’t like provisions of Amendment 2, the medical marijuana initiative before voters. Wohlsifer, who said he helped write a medical marijuana bill brought before the Legislature in 2013 and 2014, said the amendment didn’t go far enough, while Sheldon decried the hysteria surrounding the measure. He zeroed in on concerns about the amendment’s caregiver provision, which detractors say is too broad in its definition.

“This is no different than a caregiver for a citizen whose doctor prescribes oxycodone, or doctor prescribes other kinds of things,” Sheldon said. “I happen to trust the doctors of this state in terms of how they prescribe this medication.”

Bondi shot back, saying, “I don’t have full faith in all our doctors after shutting down the pills mills. I think we’re going to have a pot clinic on every corner and that the doctors who prescribed it would have full immunity.”

The Affordable Care Act predictably was a contentious topic, with Bondi attacking the law as bad for Floridians and blaming Sheldon, saying “he helped write the law.” Sheldon said the law was drafted two years before he became acting assistant secretary for the federal Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2011. He said people didn’t want to return to the days of being denied insurance for pre-existing conditions or having lifetime limits on coverage.

Bondi opposes accelerated restoration of felons’ rights, while Sheldon said the process should be streamlined for nonviolent offenders, a view Wohlsifer shared. All three candidates vowed to do all they could to battle public corruption, although Sheldon suggested the attorney general should be examining the discrepancy in Gov. Rick Scott’s state financial disclosures, referencing a recent Times/Herald report.

“To imply that our governor is corrupt, that’s not appropriate, for any candidate to say that nor for an attorney general to say that,” Bondi retorted. She cited the state’s work prosecuting former Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer as proof she was serious about rooting out public corruption.

Other issues included the state’s “stand your ground” law, which Sheldon said should be examined by a group of lawyers, law enforcement officials and citizens for “tinkering” and Wohlsifer admitted needs fine-tuning. Bondi begged off, saying she was “not a lawmaker” and said it would be up to the Legislature. The candidates also disagreed on gambling — Bondi is against it, while Wohlsifer and Sheldon are both for it, though Sheldon said the Seminole Tribe showed gambling was already working in Florida, as long as the practice was highly regulated. Wohlsifer said gambling could bring jobs to the state.