by Mitch Perry
House Minority Leader Perry Thurston and George Sheldon, who last served as the the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families, are competing against each other for the nomination for the Democratic nomination for AG. However there appears to be little distance between themselves on the issues and the candidates themselves downplayed the competitive nature of their contest at a Tampa Tiger Club meeting at Maestro's at the Straz Center on Friday. Instead they focused their energies on how they different they would act in the AG's office if they ousted the currant occupant.
But if their substance is similar, their styles are different. Thurston has a more energetic vocal delivery, and he wasted no time in going after Bondi for what he said were her extremely ideological positions, some of which he claimed were far out of the mainstream in Florida.
One issue ripe for any Democrat to exploit this year is on medical marijuana, and nobody in Florida has a higher profile in opposing the proposed ballot initiative that may go before the voters this fall than our Attorney General. But Thurston said the "true reason" that she and the rest of the GOP establishment don't want the referendum (supported by 82 percent of the public according to Quinnipiac) is because the initiative could trigger an outbreak of voters who may lean Democratic.
"The attorney general for the state of Florida should be fighting the rights of the people," he declared, chastising her further for opposing the Affordable Care Act as well as opposing the expansion of Medicaid, which could have provided an estimated 800,000 more Floridians with health care coverage. "So if you're the Attorney General for the state of Florida, we need an Attorney General who's going to fight for the state of Florida."
And Thurston said he was stunned that one of the very first acts that Bondi did after taking office three years ago (in concert with Rick Scott) was to rollback the streamlining of the process for restoring the civil and voting rights for ex-felons established by former Governor Charlie Crist. "That's not fighting for the people," he admonished.
And while he maintained that it's certainly appropriate to run in a partisan fashion for office, such partisanship should go out the window once elected. "It should be about doing what's best for the safety of all the people in the state of Florida," he said.
Sheldon was less combative in his references to Bondi, other than a cursory remark that the AG should not believe that attending a fundraiser is more important to her than presiding over the state's execution of a death-row inmate (a nod to an incident last summer in which Bondi had to apologize for seeking a delay in the execution of Marshall Lee Gore so she could attend her own fundraiser scheduled for the same evening).
A rare note of praise for her work came regarding the issue of human trafficking, where both men said she was doing the right thing, though Sheldon said he hoped her rhetoric would be matched by the strong prosecution of such traffickers.
Both Democrats were in unison in saying that the state's controversial Stand Your Ground law is ripe for being modified, though they both prefaced their comments by preaching their support for the 2nd Amendment.
Just hours before the candidates met, a group called Lifelines to Healing hosted a press conference at the AG's local Tampa office, where they called attention to the fact that Florida is only one of three states to effectively impose a lifetime disenfranchisement upon a felony conviction. They then called on Bondi's office to provide provide full civil rights restoration for Floridians with past felony convictions.
When asked by a member in the audience about the issue, Sheldon said he did support automatic restoration of the civil rights of most, but not all ex-felons. He said he would make exceptions to those convicted of first-degree murder or a sexual assault on a child.
Thurston said the battle to restore civil rights for ex-felons has been an issue that some legislators he respects have been fighting for decades, and questioned why Bondi felt the need to make such a change immediately upon entering office back in 2011.
On the fundraising front, to nobody's surprise Bondi is dominating the two Democrats. Financial reports released earlier this week show the Republican incumbent with having raised over $642,000 so far. That's over 10 times as much as Sheldon has raised (58,332), and Thurston's total take is even less than that ($33,815).