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."