Down By Law

Charlie Crist may have the name, but Buddy Dyer has the game.

With the election around the corner and opinion polls showing a close race, Democratic state attorney general candidate Buddy Dyer has been indulging in a favorite political sport in Florida: attacking Charlie Crist."He doesn’t have the qualifications to be the state’s lawyer, but he doesn’t think legal experience matters," a psyched Dyer commented before an Oct. 17 debate with Crist in Tampa.

Perhaps this year’s most important Florida race, next to governor, the AG battle has been both bloody and comical.

Dyer, a state senator from Orlando, has been the smart-ass kid throwing rocks from a glass house. The handsome, prematurely gray Crist seems to travel the state with a bull’s eye tattooed on his forehead.

The first stone zipped past Crist just two weeks before the Sept. 10 primary and came from fellow Republicans. A state firefighter’s union, masquerading as the Alliance for Public Safety, mailed out color fliers depicting Crist as a party hack whose stint as education commissioner had proven disastrous. The mailer told recipients that Crist doesn’t have any courtroom experience.

"Charlie Crist has raised millions to tell you about his "qualifications" to be attorney general," the mailer read. ‘the Alliance for Public Safety believes that you deserve to know what he is not telling you."

Florida firefighters had wanted to help Republicans Burt Locke or Tom Warner best Crist because the union believed Crist was weak on crime. The attack was indicative of a party dissatisfied with its own candidate. But Crist won the primary by a large margin.

While Dyer’s former primary opponents backed him almost immediately, Crist has yet to win the support of his primary rivals. Bob Butterworth, the well-regarded Democratic attorney general forced out of office by term limits, has thrown his support behind Dyer.

None of this, however, seems to have slowed Crist’s momentum. The St. Petersburg High School graduate and former state senator benefits from statewide name recognition and a campaign war chest worth more than $2-million, as of mid-October. Dyer had $1.5-million.

Dyer brags about having received the highest score on the 1987 Florida Bar exam while reminding voters that Crist needed three tries to pass. But Dyer has turned particularly nasty in the final weeks of the campaign.

Before the Oct. 17 debate at the Tiger Bay Club of Tampa, Dyer’s campaign staff circulated a Palm Beach Post article alleging that Crist had ‘stonewalled' an ethics probe of his use of state planes and airline tickets for trips involving both state business and campaign fundraising.

Under Florida law, Crist should have reimbursed the state for dual-purpose trips.

When questioned by a state ethics commission investigator, Crist refused to answer questions or provide documentation, according to the Post. "You basically took the Fifth," Dyer told Crist at the debate. ‘that conduct isn’t worthy of you and it’s not worthy of this office."

Crist, who reminded the Tiger Bay audience that he was cleared in the ethics investigation, said the attack was a low blow. "It’s beneath you," Crist told Dyer. ‘the polls must not be good."

Crist swung back with a recent St. Petersburg Times report of Dyer sponsoring a bill that allowed a client of Dyer’s Orlando law firm to dodge state pollution fines. Environmentalists called the legislation the Polluter Privilege and Immunity Bill.

"I don’t think it’s in your purview to lecture me on ethics," Crist said.

Dyer said it would be a rarity that Tallahassee could pass any bill that wouldn’t affect at least one client of a law firm as large as his. "I had no knowledge that it would have affected (the client, Georgia-Pacific Corp.) any way or another," Dyer said.

Crist, Dyer’s former Senate colleague, laughed at the defense after the debate: "How could he not know? How can you sponsor and pass something and not know who it’s going to affect?"

Neither candidate is squeaky-clean. Crist would likely be a Cabinet yes-man for Jeb Bush, should the governor win reelection. Dyer’s liberal stances, notably those on the environment, appear malleable.

Unlike most elected posts in the state, attorney general requires someone with significant and relevant legal experience. For this reason alone, Crist seems a worrisome candidate.

A conservative who likes to play the populist, immigrant-family-made-good card — "someone who will fight for the people instead of the powerful," as he describes himself — Crist can claim little experience as an attorney.

His resume includes a short-lived gig as general counsel for the St. Petersburg-based governing body of baseball’s minor leagues, where he dealt with contracts and litigation. Crist was also in private practice for a couple of years.

The Florida AG is charged with protecting consumers against unscrupulous companies and scam artists. Crist, a St. Pete native, would be unable to inspire much confidence in Floridians because he has proven throughout his career to be mostly a talented political campaigner and fundraiser.

Over 16 years in office, Butterworth has made a name as one of the most feared state AGs in the nation. He took on Big Tobacco and later rallied the antitrust troops against Microsoft Corp., after George W. Bush’s Justice Department decided the case wasn’t strong enough to take on the Bill Gates monopoly.

But Dyer is no Butterworth.

His previous legal experience and commitment to maintaining the office as pro-consumer force make him the candidate more likely to fight for average Floridians, Crist’s populist shtick notwithstanding. Additionally, Dyer could be the only Democratic member of the soon-to-be-downsized Cabinet — assuming David Nelson, the party’s nominee for agriculture commissioner, doesn’t pull off another fluke win in the general election.

Dyer was a lawyer who turned to politics. Crist used law to enter politics.

It’s legal experience that Dyer hopes Floridians will keep in mind on Nov. 5, not name recognition and a handsome image tailor-made for politics.

"I hope they go into the voting booth and think about how they would choose their own attorney," said Dyer.

Contact Staff Writer Trevor Aaronson at 813-248-8888, ext. 134, or [email protected].

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