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Who's the next AG?

It's the state's lawyer. The people's lawyer. Voters must decide what kind of person they want to represent them for next attorney general. And Bob Butterworth has created a hard act to follow.

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 21, 2002

Bob Butterworth has spoiled us.

For the last 16 years, Floridians have had a vigorous, sometimes downright ferocious, attorney general. He has been called both the best attorney general in the United States and the "most feared." He is the guy you have to thank for the aggressive lemon law, which has recovered more than $200-million for people who were sold pieces of junk. He is the guy who fought the Legislature's attempt to let private property owners encroach on public lands. He and his attorneys have gone after post-hurricane price-gougers, shady telemarketers, and discriminatory clubs. They worked to save the Peace River and Fisheating Creek. And they have enforced business probity, compelling badly-behaved corporations to endow million-dollar chairs in ethics at Florida A&M University and the University of South Florida.

Thanks to term limits, though, Butterworth will soon be out of a job. And the race to succeed him isn't, alas, as media sexy as the gubernatorial campaign. There, among others, you've got Jeb Bush, the man many Florida Democrats blame for the 2000 election debacle, and Janet Reno, the woman many Florida Republicans blame for Waco and sending Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba. But the attorney general's election is signally important, maybe even more important than the governor's race. Bob Butterworth himself says (naming no names) "it could be argued that in many states an attorney general can have more influence than a governor."

The attorney general is the state's lawyer, representing it in appeals arising from criminal convictions and defending Florida's laws in court. More important, he is the people's lawyer, empowered to protect them from economic abuses, civil rights violations and the despoiling of the environment. The attorney general can be proactive, as Butterworth has been, going after malefactors from Prudential to the bar in Perry, where a black patron was told he had to sit in the back room. Or an attorney general can be reactive, more hands-off, letting the governor and the Legislature set the agenda. What is certain is the office of the attorney general will, after this election, be more powerful than ever before. The Cabinet will have shrunk to three and, after the governor, the attorney general will be the second most powerful official elected to statewide office. He will not only run the state's department of legal affairs but, for the first time, sit on the state board of administration, overseeing the state's finances.

So the question facing Florida voters here is as much philosophical as it is political: What kind of attorney general do you want?

The official qualifying is this week, but the race is well-established. All the candidates, Democrats and Republicans, praise Butterworth and say they'll carry on his "legacy" -- with some modifications, of course. The three Democrats -- former Deputy Attorney General George Sheldon, State Sen. Buddy Dyer, and Tallahassee Mayor Scott Maddox -- wrap themselves most tightly in the Butterworth mantle. The Republicans -- Solicitor General Tom Warner, State Sen. Locke Burt, and Education Commissioner Charlie Crist -- seem more Butterworth Lite, less likely to take on the governor and the Legislature.

What with all of the candidates seeming to echo the famous scene in Spartacus proclaiming "No, I am Bob Butterworth!" and with the pronounced lack of media and political attention so far to the race, it can be hard to tell them apart. Still there are important differences. And which candidate wins will profoundly affect Florida -- profoundly affect you -- in years to come.

The Democrats

Butterworth isn't endorsing a candidate at the moment. In fact, he does not comment on them individually, though last December he did allow as how he found the idea of Charlie Crist (who had to take the bar exam three times before he passed it) becoming attorney general "scary." Still, Tallahassee pundits figure it's a safe bet George Sheldon is his first choice. Sheldon is godfather to Butterworth's daughter. And Butterworth's wife, Marta Prado, held a fundraiser for him.

Until recently a deputy attorney general, Sheldon's message is: If you liked the last 16 years, with him you'll like the next four. Sheldon stresses his expertise, saying "the attorney general's office is no place for on-the-job training."

Sheldon is courting the Democratic Party base: African-Americans, women, and voters still riled up about the recount. He likes to talk about his record working with Butterworth, especially on things like the lawsuit against Adams Mark Hotels for making black guests wear wristbands and pay in cash when white guests did not have to. That case garnered a settlement of $1-million, distributed to historically black colleges throughout the state. And though elections are, under the Florida Constitution, supervised by the Secretary of State, Sheldon has waded into that arena. He recently proposed a plan to place them under the aegis of an independent commission made up of a mix of Republicans, Democrats and non-partisan representatives. This will, Sheldon says, "remove as much as possible the taint of political influence."

Sheldon says: "Fifty percent of the job is standing up for what you believe in, using the bully pulpit." Buddy Dyer and Scott Maddox, his rivals in the Democratic primary, concur. Dyer has an energetic list of priorities, including putting more muscle into civil rights, putting pressure on the Legislature to devote resources for fighting Medicaid fraud, and being "an advocate for an independent judiciary." Scott Maddox also calls that a priority, proclaiming "the independent judiciary is a prime responsibility of the attorney general and the very fabric of our Constitution."

That fabric might well get torn during the next legislative session. On the day that Jeb Bush announced the appointment of Raoul Cantero, a conservative Miami lawyer, to the state Supreme Court, he lit into "activist judges" -- obviously a rhetorical hand-grenade lobbed at Democrats.

The sorry state of many Florida schools would also be on Maddox's bully pulpit agenda. He insists the social consequences of a poorly-educated populace can become a law enforcement issue: "We are dead last in per capita education spending. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that in a generation we are going to have a populace with no skills and no education and therefore a terrible crime problem."

While Maddox likes to say he's "a fighter" and would take on "the big issues" such as suing the Republican Legislature over the dispersal of lottery money for purposes other than education, Dyer's selling point is his reputation as a lawyer. He'll tell you he got the highest grade on the bar exam and has practiced for 15 years. Implicitly criticizing Maddox, who is only 34, has not racked up a fat legal resume, and early on considered running for governor), Dyer says: "The office of attorney general would not be just a notch on my belt. I haven't been running for governor; I've been preparing for this job."

The Republicans

If everybody is Bob Butterworth, everybody is also running against Charlie Crist, the perennial candidate with the big smile, the big tan and the big campaign bank account. When Buddy Dyer makes a crack about lawyering skills (or lack of them), he's talking about Crist as much as his Democratic opponents. Locke Burt calls Crist's legal qualifications into question. Tom Warner is polite but dismissive about both his Republican rivals, saying that neither Crist nor Burt have really practiced law. Burt rejects this, saying he worked as a corporate attorney from 1974 to 1980 (he is now an insurance executive), while Crist insists that he's "been practicing law for 20 years." His financial disclosure forms, however, show no appreciable income from legal work since his first job as house counsel for Minor League Baseball.

Both Burt and Warner know they are at a disadvantage with Crist. Despite being investigated for alleged campaign ethics violations, Crist is a popular Republican figure. He has statewide name recognition and an ability to raise money while saying almost nothing. Burt made his Senate reputation on law enforcement issues, fervently embracing the death penalty and the usual "tough on crime" measures. His campaign video dubs him "Lock 'em up Locke." He sees the job of attorney general not so much as fighter again corporate racism or consumer problems (though he calls Florida "the rip-off capital of the world") but as a "spokesman for the law enforcement community." The race, he adds, is "not about hiring somebody to try cases."

Warner, on the other hand, believes the job is about trying cases. Indeed, he is currently solicitor general (unlike Sheldon, he did not resign from the attorney general's office to run) and calls himself "primarily a lawyer." He touts his 25-plus years in practice and casts himself as Butterworthesque, "a champion of the public interest." He likes to talk about going after charity scams and fighting offshore drilling. When asked about the Legislature's current mania for creating exemptions to Florida's much-admired open government laws, he is somewhat equivocal. On the one hand, he "strongly supports open records," but on the other, we are "facing new threats" and may need to narrow some liberties to address them.

For his part, Burt does not hedge on open government. Not only did he win a "Friend of the First Amendment" award from the First Amendment Foundation, he was the only senator to vote against holding secret meetings, an idea he calls "outrageous."

Underdogs Burt and Warner have highly developed positions on other issues from the environment to seaport security to major league baseball teams; they have to and they know it. Crist, who can travel around the state as education commissioner getting on television for free, can afford to be safely vague. As Burt says, "I'm running as the top cop, Tom's running as the world's smartest lawyer and Charlie's just running."

Crist is remarkably short on specifics as to what he would do as attorney general. He says (like everyone else) he would "continue in the Butterworth tradition." He would be "aggressive when it was necessary" but not overly proactive. While he "generally agrees" with Butterworth, he also says "I agree with what Gov. Bush has done for our state." When asked why he wants to be attorney general, he replies, "I enjoy public service."

Crist's campaign is fueled more by money and a familiar face than by ideas. His Web site proclaims such accomplishments as bringing chain gangs back to Florida prisons and sponsoring the "Florida, state of the arts" license plate. He refers constantly to the time in 1997 when he went to court to stop Florida Power Corp. from raising rates on its customers, but when asked what other consumer issues he has been involved in, he says none comes immediately to mind.

Despite his breezy noncommittal campaign, there are clues as to what kind of attorney general Crist would be. And that would not be the Bob Butterworth variety. For example, in December, Crist gave an official wink to Bill Gates. Florida is currently one of only a handful of states that have refused to join the national settlement of the Microsoft Corp. antitrust case on the grounds that the U.S. Justice Department under John Ashcroft has been too easy on them. The giant company has been found guilty of anticompetitive behavior. But when Microsoft "reached out" to Crist as education commissioner, he reached back, issuing a press release on departmental letterhead, declaring, "Microsoft settlement could help offset budget reductions."

It turned out that Crist was referring to a private settlement between Microsoft and a group of class-action lawyers, not the government settlement, but the message was clear. Crist is content to go easy.

Crist makes the right noises about consumer protection, but he may, in fact, be inclined to leave business alone. Last fall, he attended a meeting in Washington D.C. of Republican attorneys general dedicated to stamping out environmental, civil rights and consumer protection lawsuits by "activist liberal attorneys general."

No matter who wins, life in Florida will change. If the wrong candidate becomes attorney general, the path will be smooth for the Legislature to get rid of the antitrust division -- which Bob Butterworth used to great effect. It will also become easier for lawmakers to accomplish their long-cherished goal of changing the law on sovereign submerged lands, which means we may see some shorelines fenced off if private property owners no longer have to respect the high-water mark standard. If the right candidate gets in office, he'll no doubt have a series of fights on his hands over abortion, the environment and corporate practices.

As Bob Butterworth said, shaking his head, "Lots of Floridians don't understand the importance of the office."

Come January, when a new attorney general is sworn in, maybe they will.

-- Diane Roberts, a former Times editorial writer, divides her time between the University of Alabama, where she teaches, and her native Florida.

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