Florida Democratic Attorney General candidates square off at state party conference

Dan Gelber and Dave Aronberg are two prominent South Florida Democrats in the state Senate.

Originally, Gelber announced he was running for the party's nomination for U.S. Senate in 2010, where he certainly would have been engaged in a tough battle against Congressman Kendrick Meek.

But when Charlie Crist got into the Senate race on the GOP side, Gelber bailed, and announced he'd be running for Attorney General, a position he is certainly qualified for, based on his work as an Assistant in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami.

A slight problem for state Democrats who prefer an uncontested Primary was that Senator Aronberg had already announced his candidacy.  He too, has impressive credentials for the gig, having worked under the last Democrat to hold the state wide position, Bob Butterworth.

In their first formal debate Sunday morning at Disney's Yacht Club Convention Center, Aronberg milked his association with Butterworth throughout the hour long forum, prompting one Gelber advisor to mutter to press row if Butterworth was actually on the ballot.

The two colleagues stressed throughout their discussion how they were friends and would not engage in the politics of personal destruction, but Aronberg did end the bonhomie when he accused Gelber of distorting his stance on private school vouchers, saying, "I'm used to running in tough races.  Republicans have spent over a million and a half dollars attacking my record.  But I've never had a Democrat distort my record. ..I've NEVER voted to increase the voucher system."

(The Palm Beach Post reported that Aronberg DID vote this past year for a bill to continue an existing program of tax credits to businesses that contribute to programs providing vouchers to low-income students. Aronberg told the Post after the debate that the bill neither created nor expanded vouchers.)

Being Attorney General means being the state's top law enforcement officer, which means these Democrats certainly want to prove their toughness.  They did that when discussing child predators.  Both referenced the situation that exists in Miami at the Julia Tuttle Causeway, which over the past two years has become a colony for homeless sexual predators.

Aronberg said he couldn't imagine a "less safe situation than having an army of homeless, angry sex offenders roaming the streets. This is dangerous.  This is putting everybody at risk," he said.

Gelber was equally uncharitable, saying he recently checked out the camp, "because they all claim to be 'Romeo-and- Juliet' cases"(that is a teenager over 18 having sex with somebody under 18).  "Almost every single one  of them was a 40 or 50 year old guy who has done something absolutely unspeakable to a child under the age of 11.  That's who they are."

The candidates also different on using cameras on traffic signals to detect red light runners.  Gelber supports such a bill, which failed to get through the Legislature this past year but is expected to be revisited in 2010.  Aronberg said he had some civil liberties issues about using them.

Speaking as they were at the State Democratic Party's Conference, the inevitable 'red meat' was delivered throughout the hour long session, moderated by USF's Susan McManus.  Gelber began in his opening statement by listing a variety of state woes, and who deserves that blame, saying, "We have the worst high school graduation rate, the highest mortgage foreclosure rate, 4 million without health care, we have one of the worst crime rates".  He then paused before laying the blame on Republicans who have dominated state government over the past decade, adding, "They have driven this state into a ditch.  And just like any responsible parent, it's time for us to say, your driving privileges have been suspended - hand over they keys."

Aronberg said one difference between the two major political parties was that the GOP is motivated by hate, but Democrats are motivated by passion.  He also stressed how much he wants the position, blasting the current previous AG's (Bill McCollum and Charlie Crist) as using the job as a temporary station before moving on to greater pastures.

Several Democrats interview by CL before the debate said they liked both men and were uncertain who they would support come Primary time late next summer.    As they cracked on Republicans for showing a lack of civility in politics, it will be interesting to see as the stakes get higher whether these two high caliber politicos will be able to maintain their cool in the coming year.

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