The Primaries: Dems Dave Aronberg vs. Dan Gelber for FL Attorney General

Two strong Dems are running for AG. They used to like each other.

Dan Gelber sat upright in his chair, fuming, as he listened to Republican Attorney General candidate Holly Benson. She was explaining to a Tampa Tiger Bay Club forum why she supports the lawsuit filed by the current AG, Bill McCollum, challenging the federal government's mandate that every citizen must buy health care insurance when the law goes into effect in 2014.

Benson told the 50 or so people in attendance that the bill was clearly unconstitutional, violating the Commerce Clause and specifically the 10th Amendment. The moderator at the debate asked if any of the other candidates cared to respond.

Gelber stood quickly, grabbed his microphone and said he would. "You're wrong!" he bellowed, staring down at Benson and getting a cheer from the decidedly liberal audience. But he was just getting started.

"There are 4 million Floridians without health care, 800,000 children so sick that they have to be taken to the emergency room for pediatric care, and that's a shame, that's a moral stain, and it's wrong," he said fiercely, eager for the chance to challenge Republican assertions that arose after the bill passed and McCollum sued earlier this year.

He then asked how many in the room have had their FICA taxes taken out of their paychecks. "Every single person in this room," he answered. "You know what that's for? For your Medicare when you grow older. It's not a violation of the Commerce Clause, it's a frivolous lawsuit politicized by the attorney general's office, and the moment I'm attorney general, I will recede from it. We need to provide health care to the people of the state of Florida, and that's that!"

The outburst led to a sustained cheer, and demonstrated why for the past decade the Democratic state Senator from North Miami Beach has been perhaps the most effective and articulate communicator for a party that has been locked down in minority status.

As a former assistant U.S. attorney, the 49-year-old Gelber certainly has the experience to run for attorney general. But in early 2009, he announced he was intending to run for the Democratic nomination for U.S.Senate. Then, after Charlie Crist announced he would run in the Republican primary, Gelber shifted to the AG race.

His opponent for the Democratic nomination, State Sen. Dave Aronberg, subtly reminds audiences about Gelber's shift on the campaign trail. "This is not a stepping stone for me, it's not a fallback position," he says at debates and forums. Like Gelber, he's considered one of the stars of the party. A decade younger at 39, Aronberg also has solid credentials for the job, having worked in the AG's office under the last Democrat to hold the Cabinet position, Bob Butterworth.

The race had been the only statewide Democratic-contested primary until Jeff Greene challenged Kendrick Meek for the Senate nomination. In that contest, most of the party establishment is standing behind one candidate, Meek. The Gelber/Aronberg race, on the other hand, is dividing state Democrats, who insist that they will become united once primary voters decide on a candidate at the end of this month.

Until recently, both Democrats seemed to share a sense of tremendous mutual respect. And why wouldn't they? Their positions are exactly the same on numerous issues: illegal immigration (they oppose an Arizona-type law); health care reform (they're against suing the federal government à la McCollum); gay adoption (they denounce the law which makes Florida the only state in the union that denies same-sex couples from adopting), pill mills and many others.

But the mutual admiration pact ended on a Monday night in late June.

That's when the Aronberg campaign issued a press release calling for Gelber to step down from the law firm where he'd worked for years, Akerman Senterfitt, because of its new civil litigation client: BP, the least popular company in the Sunshine State.

Gelber responded later that evening that he had resigned days earlier, and blasted Aronberg for a "sophomoric stunt."

But Team Aronberg seized on the dispute, sending out mailers to Democrats implying that Gelber was "defending BP" and that he earned his $225,000 per year from "BP's law firm."

That tactic irritated South Florida Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, who had been neutral, into endorsing Gelber. She says she thought that the two men had made an agreement that they would run a clean campaign. She says with the BP mailer, Aronberg violated that agreement.

"Maybe I was a little naïve," Rich said by telephone last week. "I was going to be neutral, until this happened," she says of the BP fracas. "It pushed me over to the Gelber side."

The editorial pages of some of the state's newspapers also took Aronberg to task. The Palm Beach Post wrote that because the two didn't differ that much on the "real issues facing Florida, that explains Sen. Aronberg's attempt to manufacture an issue. It doesn't excuse it."

Aronberg dismissed the Rich endorsement, saying it was a total non-surprise and that she was always going to endorse Gelber anyway.

But he had a harder time brushing off St. Petersburg Democrat Representative Rick Kriseman, who was (and still is) neutral in the race. Kriseman said he thought the BP mailer was "horribly misleading....and it's those kinds of ads I don't like to see."

Kriseman said he confronted Aronberg about the mailer and told him he should stay positive in talking about himself and the job. "I wasn't really satisfied with his response," says Kriseman, leading him to accept a request by the Gelber campaign to record a robocall in which he says he thinks the ad was misleading.

In an interview last week, Aronberg stood unrepentant, saying that Gelber had not been straight with the voters about his activity.

If too much was made about the BP incident, it reflects the fact that there had been no controversies until then, and that Aronberg believes taking heat from the press is worth putting a doubt in primary voters' minds about Gelber. The dispute also seemed to permanently end the bonhomie, with Gelber later calling Aronberg "a junior lawyer on his best day," a charge that Aronberg says is getting too personal.

In late July, Gelber contacted Aronberg and the media, calling on the two to conduct 11 one-on-one debates until the election. Aronberg called that high number "unrealistic and smacks of a political stunt."

The bickering may be inevitable. With both candidates well-qualified, it was only a matter of time before the race came down to personalities.

When it comes to resumes, Gelber's is impressive. After attending Tufts University and then the University of Florida Law School, he became one of the country's youngest federal prosecutors at the age of 25 when he joined the South Florida U.S. Attorney's Office, where he worked for nearly a decade. He then was appointed by former Georgia U.S. Senator Sam Nunn as chief counsel and staff director for the U.S. Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. In 2000, he won a House seat in Miami Beach, and was soon voted minority leader by his Democratic colleagues, and became known as one of the strong voices of loyal opposition to Governor Jeb Bush.

His passions are widespread, such as on education. Last October he called on Attorney General McCollum to file a lawsuit against the Legislature and the governor, challenging the adequacy of Florida's public education budget.

Jennifer Fenn is president of the Hillsborough Young Democrats. She says she first met Gelber three years ago, and after viewing some YouTube videos of him speaking on the House floor was impressed with how "he was fighting for the little person. And I realized, 'I really like him. He's powerful and he's a real guy.'"

But some Dave Aronberg supporters say that Gelber's ambitions are purely political, while their candidate lives and breathes for the AG office.

A graduate of both Harvard College and its law school, Aronberg began his legal career with the firm of Steel, Hector & David, which led to him working with then Florida Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson to pressure European insurance companies that had refused to honor WWII-era policies sold to victims of the Holocaust. In 1999, he began working in the office he now desires, the Florida AG's office, where he worked under the last Democrat to run that office, Bob Butterworth, concentrating on economic crimes.

Then in 2002, Aronberg ran for his first political race, winning and becoming the youngest member of the state Senate at the age of 31.

Screven Watson is a Democratic party strategist based in Tallahassee and a paid consultant with the Aronberg campaign. He says that Aronberg's passions match what the attorney general does for a living. "He's built his career around issues like public safety, law enforcement, anti-gang legislation," he says, and mentions that Aronberg has won endorsements from Democratic sheriffs around the state.

Watson also thinks Aronberg will be a better general election candidate than Gelber in the fall, because he's had to win over Republicans in his uniquely drawn district, which encompasses Lee County in the west with Palm Beach County in the east, and is only 39 percent Democratic.

Although both men are personable, Aronberg's gift for hobnobbing is extraordinary. With over 4,000 friends on Facebook, his ability to be social is a crucial gift that some lawmakers never get a hang of. Aronberg for years has attended local Jefferson-Jackson dinners across the state, becoming a well-known figure outside his district, and it appears that his friendliness has paid dividends.

Francine Simmons is a Democratic activist in Hillsborough County. She says she met Aronberg at a Jefferson Jackson Dinner in 2004, and became an instant fan. "Here I was, a middle-aged woman who happened to be at the dinner, and he took the time to talk to me. Since then, he's kept in touch with me."

Hillsborough/Pinellas state Senator Charlie Justice has worked with both men, and likes and respects them. He calls Gelber "an extraordinary public servant" and says Aronberg "has a passion for being attorney general." He says as a Democrat he doesn't think there's a bad choice possible, and says he thinks that after four years of Bill McCollum's reign in office it will be good to get politics out of that office.

"I thought that his office staff has worked well, but I think he has knee-jerked in too many places," Justice says.

Most Democrats are united on that, which is why there probably won't be too much division in their ranks after August 24.

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