This week Attorney General Pam Bondi furthered her right-wing credentials by attacking Governor Scott’s willingness to enroll Florida in Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. Bondi’s action continues a long standing pattern of partisan and ideological purity which may not serve the best interest of Floridians but has the most reactionary conservatives all over the nation hailing her as a superstar.
Recently much of the attention of Florida Democrats has been rightfully focused on ousting Governor Rick Scott next year. However, little if any time has been spent in discussing the statewide cabinet races, a place where Democrats must take advantage of shifting attitudes and demographics in the state. Democrats have lost 10 of the last 11 cabinet races with the lone victory coming in 2006 when Alex Sink defeated Senate President Tom Lee who had become unpopular among Tallahassee lobbyists and Republican donors/activists throughout the state. This record is worse than any other Democratic Party east of the Mississippi over the same time period (since 2000). Defeating either Jeff Atwater (who boasts support of many nominal Democrats in southeast Florida) and Adam Putnam, the former number three Republican in the U.S. House leadership who appears a clean fit for Agriculture Commissioner will be difficult. Democrats should by no means concede either of these two races, but the focus should be on Attorney General Pam Bondi whose weaknesses and public statements can be easily exploited.
As the Republicans solidified their hegemony over the state during the late 1990s, they badly wanted a partisan Attorney General who would implement a doctrinaire conservative interpretation of the law. In many cases conservatives misinterpret the law, manipulate its intent while misrepresenting the debate and discussions behind the passages of these laws. This should not come as a shock considering we are discussing a political party that has actively promoted anti-intellectualism as a part of its appeal to voters.
Consider that many members of the American and Florida Bar consider Pam Bondi to be one of the worst Attorney General’s in the country. Accordingly, Bondi has been the hyper-partisan ideological law enforcement officer Florida Republicans have long craved. This is no surprise considering Bondi’s prior claim to fame was as a conservative hack on FOX News’ Hannity show, which is one hour of pure right wing drivel, which in some cases could be characterized as reflexively anti-American. Bondi won a competitive three way Republican Primary in 2010 and then benefited from a conservative tide and political attacks bordering on slander towards Dan Gelber, the single state legislator who was most qualified to be Attorney General in the State of Florida in order to win her office. Bondi and her surrogates waged a campaign of fear and demagoguery about “Obamacare,” feminism, “activist” judges and “radical environmentalism.”
In office, Bondi has proven to be the partisan Florida Republicans had longed for. Her agenda as Attorney General has not been to protect Florida’s consumers or working class but to protect corporations, insurance companies, polluters, high profile corporate law firms, mortgage companies and other entities pushing a conservative viewpoint. Unlike Bob Butterworth, who approached law enforcement in a non-partisan way and even appointed a Republican Solicitor General, most of Bondi’s appointments have been strictly ideological and partisan. Charlie Crist’s tenure as Attorney General was a disappointment to partisan Republicans as Crist continued many of Butterworth’s policies and maintained much of his staff. Bill McCollum moved the office in a partisan direction but still did not satisfy the crowd that congregates around right-wing ideologues as well as Koch brothers and DeVos family funded think tanks as well as Christian right advocates.
Unfortunately to this point the only Democrat to step forward in the Attorney General’s race is House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston a competent lawyer and liberal advocate but someone who has proven in his history to have a hard time fundraising and someone who has lost the most competitive elections he has run in locally in Broward County. Thurston would be a good Attorney General but will have a hard time beating Bondi. From what I have learned, many people including former Attorney General Butterworth have given thought to the type of Democrat that needs to be recruited to have a strong chance of winning. Any Democrat that runs for this position either with the support General Butterworth or prominent people associated with him would have instant credibility among many donors and primary voters. Whether Perry Thurston or some other Democrat receives the nomination taking down Pam Bondi needs to be a statewide priority for all progressives and those who care about protecting consumers and non-partisan law enforcement.
The Republican Party of Florida has waited years to have an Attorney General like this. Pam Bondi not only was a star on FOX News, but now is an RPOF superstar being exported to the national stage thanks to the ruling on the Affordable Health Care Act. The GOP finally gained the office for the first time post reconstruction in 2002. That year a three way Republican Primary had been won by Charlie Crist, who was anything but a reliable conservative. Many establishment Republicans and Tallahassee insiders backed Locke Burt for the Attorney General’s post feeling that Burt, who was an insurance man, would be sufficiently partisan despite a less than conservative record on some social issues. The other candidate, former Martin County Rep. Tom Warner, served as Bob Butterworth’s Solicitor General and was always considered a moderate. Warner had also staked out a strong position in favor of Everglades Restoration and taxing the sugar companies which angered many corporate donors.
However, Crist was the victor and the next four years activist conservatives became less and less comfortable with their Attorney General. He was, after all, a populist whose conflicts with Governor Bush sometimes spilled into the open. For example, in 2003 Crist publicly called for an investigation into oil companies for price gouging. This was a no-no for any GOP official in the era of a Bush Governorship and Presidency. Crist also made clear his disdain for the handling of the Terry Schiavo affair by both the national and state GOP leadership even if he avoided saying anything directly about the matter.
With Crist safely kicked up stairs to the Governorship in 2006, Republicans hoped for better luck with Bill McCollum whose partisanship was often on display with the House Judiciary Committee in Washington. McCollum rallied from behind to defeat Democrat Skip Campbell, whose lackluster campaign helped make McCollum appear more moderate than he really was. McCollum did push a partisan agenda but sometimes stopped short of open warfare with liberals and assaults on “activist” judges which have became the staple of the GOP agenda in the last decade.
Once again, Florida Republicans have demonstrated that they cannot govern effectively without forcing ideology down the throats of our citizens. Pam Bondi is a disastrous Attorney General for our state. Elections do have consequences and when Democrats are divided thanks to petty local squabbles, the malign influence of some Tallahassee insiders or simply disorganized we end up with statewide officials like Bondi.