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    A Times Editorial

    TIMES RECOMMENDS: For attorney general

    State Sen. Buddy Dyer stands apart from his strong competition in the Democratic primary; for Republicans, Sen. Locke Burt seems the best prepared of the GOP contenders.


    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 18, 2002


    Among Florida's elected officials, only the governor wields more influence over citizens' lives, for better or worse, than the attorney general does. Longtime Attorney General Bob Butterworth has shown just how vital the office can be: protecting the interests of Florida consumers against the tobacco industry, Microsoft, unscrupulous publishing companies and other predatory businesses; defending the state's open government laws from insidious attack; upholding the integrity of the state Constitution and the independence of the judiciary in the face of political assaults in Tallahassee. The lives of millions of Floridians would have been affected for the worse if Butterworth's shoes had been filled for the past 16 years by an attorney general with a different philosophy, or one less aggressive in defending citizens' rights.

    Term limits require Butterworth to leave office, and the race to replace him may turn out to be more interesting than the gubernatorial contest. Four Democrats and three Republicans are seeking the attorney general's post, and the primary campaigns in each party will go a long way toward determining whether Butterworth's impressive legacy will be extended or reversed.

    Dyer for Democrats

    In the Democratic primary, state Sen. Buddy Dyer of Orlando stands out as the best choice in a strong field. Dyer, who served as Senate Democratic leader from 1997 to 2000, has the best combination of legal expertise and political skill to carry forward the work of the attorney general's office in ways that reflect the best interests of Florida citizens.

    As a legislative leader representing the minority party, Dyer has stood for principle when appropriate. However, he also has shown an ability to work with Republicans in support of important education and law-and-order initiatives. That recent experience in forging bipartisan consensus sets Dyer apart from his Democratic rivals.

    Dyer also has the legal credentials for the job. A graduate of the University of Florida College of Law, Dyer was editor-in-chief of the law review and received the highest grade on the Florida Bar Exam in 1987. He has 15 years of experience in commercial litigation and has received the highest rating for an attorney, AV, from the Martindale-Hubbell rating service.

    Dyer says his top priority as attorney general would be to crack down on corporate crime, and he promises to be even more aggressive than Butterworth in targeting Medicaid fraud and civil rights violations. He also says he would avoid one of Butterworth's rare missteps -- serving as a state chairman of Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign -- by keeping his office removed from any entanglement in partisan politics.

    The other Democrats in the attorney general's race are former Tampa legislator George Sheldon, who now serves as deputy attorney general for Central Florida; Tallahassee Mayor Scott Maddox; and longtime consumer advocate Walt Dartland.

    Sheldon has an admirable record of public service. As a member of the Legislature, he was instrumental in enacting nursing home reforms and new environmental protections. As deputy attorney general for this region, he has led efforts to crack down on abuse of the elderly and to develop programs for at-risk juveniles. Maddox, only 34, already has served as mayor of Tallahassee for seven years and is a past president of the Florida League of Cities. Dartland served as a deputy attorney general during Butterworth's first term and has long played a role of national leadership in Common Cause.

    Dyer stands apart from his strong competition for several reasons. He committed to run for attorney long before any of his opponents, and he has developed a stronger campaign organization and clearer message. His recent work as a Democratic legislative leader has given him important preparation for the political challenges Butterworth's successor surely will face. And his legal credentials are the most impressive in the Democratic field.

    In the Democratic primary for attorney general, the Times recommends Buddy Dyer.

    Burt for Republicans

    Like Dyer, Locke Burt comes to the attorney general's race after having built an impressive record as a legislative leader in Tallahassee.

    Burt, a veteran state senator from Ormond Beach, has earned a reputation as a tough and knowledgeable advocate on criminal justice issues. Even in a race against "Chain Gang" Charlie Crist, "Lock 'em up Locke" can claim a much more substantial record of tough-on-crime legislation. We opposed some of Burt's initiatives, such as those that stripped constitutional protections from death-row inmates. Generally, however, Burt has built a moderate and responsible record in Tallahassee. His support for Florida's open-government laws has been as strong as any Republican lawmaker's, and he has earned a "Friend of the First Amendment" award.

    Burt, a graduate of Loyola University law school in Chicago, also earned a Master of Business Administration degree from Northwestern University and worked as a banking executive before building an insurance business in Ormond Beach.

    Crist, the current education commissioner, former legislator and perpetual candidate for statewide office, is Burt's best-known opponent. Crist has been free to run a vigorous campaign for attorney general for the past several months, because Gov. Jeb Bush stripped him of most of his responsibilities in the course of reorganizing the state's education system. Crist's political skills often are underestimated -- Burt calls Crist the master of "the sound bite and the spotlight" -- but his actual legislative record is skimpy, and his legal credentials are even skimpier.

    Tom Warner, a former legislator from Martin County who has served as Florida's solicitor general in the attorney general's office since 1999, is Burt's best-qualified opponent. As solicitor general, he has handled some of the office's most important and complex cases, including those affecting the prosecution of fraudulent telemarketers and the investigation of Major League Baseball's apparent violation of antitrust laws. Like Burt, Warner compiled a generally positive record of leadership in the Legislature, winning awards for his work in juvenile justice and conservation. However, his record on open-government issues is not as consistent as Burt's, and some of his comments since Sept. 11 have raised concerns about his views on important civil liberties issues.

    Burt, Warner and Crist all have well-known records in Tallahassee, and it is telling that Burt has won the broad support of respected Republican leaders who have worked with all three. Former Senate President Toni Jennings and incoming Senate President Jim King have endorsed Burt. So have Tampa Bay Sens. Jack Latvala, Don Sullivan and Tom Lee, along with many other lawmakers.

    Crist has more special-interest money, but Burt has more impressive support in Tallahassee and in the law enforcement community. Burt appears to be the best prepared of the Republican candidates to handle the attorney general's political, legal and organizational responsibilities. He also has been more thoughtful and specific than his Republican opponents in developing an agenda for the attorney general's broader duties as a member of the reconstituted state Cabinet.

    In the Republican contest for attorney general, the Times recommends Locke Burt.

    Opportunity to reply

    The Times offers candidates not recommended by its Editorial Board an opportunity to reply. Candidates should send in their replies no later than 5 p.m. Wednesday to: Philip Gailey, editor of editorials, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. By e-mail: letters@sptimes.com. By fax: (727) 893-8675. Replies are limited to 250 words.

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