Last-minute candidate joins attorney general race

Published July 22, 2006

A campaign contributor and former client of Democratic state Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell's filed to run against him for attorney general Friday, a bizarre twist on an otherwise calm final day for candidates to qualify for the fall ballot.

Broward County lawyer Merrilee Ehrlich paid $7,666.26 to be placed on the September Democratic Party primary ballot. Until then, Campbell had no primary challenge. Former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum won the Republican nomination unopposed.

Ehrlich, 55, made a $100 contribution to Campbell's campaign in December and again in March, but said Friday she decided to run to offer Democrats a choice. She delivered the paperwork to the state Division of Elections office in Tallahassee.

"Mr. Campbell doesn't have any more statewide exposure than I do," Ehrlich said after qualifying.

The idea of a Democratic runoff shocked political observers, who had expected McCollum, not Campbell, to have primary competition.

It also led to almost immediate questions about Ehrlich's candidacy.

Besides contributing to Campbell, who is also from the Fort Lauderdale area, Ehrlich had hired him as her attorney in a car accident lawsuit, she said. He won damages for her in that case; she did not say how much.

Ehrlich also has no semblance of a campaign organization. Her treasurer, Norman Leonard, is a noted Broward operative connected to a family already backing Campbell.

"I was as surprised as anyone at 10:15 this morning, when I first started hearing something like this was going to happen," said Campbell campaign manager Jeff Garcia. "And for the life of me, I can't figure out what they're doing." Campbell was vacationing in Maine and did not return a call seeking comment.

The McCollum campaign also found Ehrlich's candidacy intriguing. It wants her added to an attorney general forum in Orlando next week.

Ehrlich would not discuss her strategy with a reporter. Leonard said, if elected, Ehrlich would ask the Legislature to place a constitutional amendment before voters deleting term limit provisions for federal legislators.

The current language, which limits U.S. representatives to eight years and U.S. senators to 12, has already been tossed out by the United States Supreme Court, however.

The Campbell campaign said it will focus on McCollum, not Ehrlich.

"We have an opponent," said Garcia. "He's a Washington lobbyist, and his name's Bill McCollum."

Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.