Debates feature rivals for Cabinet

CFO candidate Alex Sink's challenge of a new Tom Lee ad heats up their face - off.

By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
Published October 25, 2006

MIAMI - The two contenders for Florida chief financial officer traded jabs over a new campaign ad during a debate Tuesday, while the candidates for state attorney general took pains to note the few instances where their views significantly differ.

The forums were hosted by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and they featured questions on matters of particular interest to the business community, including health care, insurance and property taxes.

But the debates also gave candidates a venue to criticize their opponents for what they said were misrepresentations of their records.

The harshest words came from Democratic CFO candidate Alex Sink, who added postscripts to several of her debate answers to rebuke Republican Tom Lee for an ad the state Republican Party began running Tuesday.

The ad mentions Sink's service on several civic boards whose members supported fee or tuition increases. The ad's intent was to chip away at Sink's definition of herself as a nonpartisan, fiscal conservative in a race that's expected to be very close. But Sink said it won't work.

"How could I be president of the state's largest bank and not be a fiscal conservative?" said Sink, who was Florida president of Bank of America, formerly Nations Bank, for seven years,

"He said I voted to raise taxes and that's not true," Sink said after the forum. "I've never served in public office before - how could I vote to raise taxes?"

The ad notes Sink's tenure on the Schools and Futures Committee, a group that in 1995 supported a half-penny increase for school and criminal justice projects in Hillsborough County. (Voters killed the measure and Lee campaigned against it.) The ad also mentions her service on two other boards, the Governor's Commission on Education and the Business/Higher Education Partnership.

The governor's group suggested expanding a utilities tax to pay for more school construction in 1997, when enrollment increases put too many students in portable classrooms. Instead of raising the tax, lawmakers agreed in a special legislative session to borrow $2.7-billion to build the classrooms. (As a member of the Senate, Lee voted for the proposal.)

Responding to Sink's objections to his ad, Lee said he was merely showing voters Sink's true colors on fiscal policy.

"You're attempting to run as a conservative because you know that's popular in this state, but that's not what you are," Lee said.

Later Tuesday, Sink sent out a statement in which she said Lee was the only CFO candidate who had actually voted for a tax increase, in particular a $2-a-day tax on rental cars. The tax would have been subject to approval by voters in county referendums. Gov. Jeb Bush this summer vetoed a broader transportation bill including the tax option.

The debate between attorney general candidates Walter "Skip" Campbell, the Democrat, and Bill McCollum, the Republican, lacked such fireworks.

Both promised to beef up protection for the elderly and to go after Internet sexual predators. Campbell said he wanted to focus more in recouping the several billion dollars the state loses to Medicaid fraud each year. McCollum vowed to boost security at the state's ports.

But they differ on restoring felons' rights. In Florida, a felon may not vote, serve on a jury, run for public office or own a gun without getting a pardon from the state clemency board, which is made up of Cabinet members.

Campbell supports automatically restoring the rights of felons after their release from prison, except in some cases, such as capital offenses and sexual battery.

McCollum wants the state to address the backlog of cases of felons who want their rights restored, but he doesn't support automatic restoration.