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.

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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."

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