Florida’s next Attorney General could shake up the state’s top legal job — or not. Voters will decide.

By: - August 23, 2018 7:00 am
Pictured clockwise from upper left; Sean Shaw, Ryan Torrens, Frank White & Ashley Moody

Pictured clockwise from upper left; Sean Shaw, Ryan Torrens, Frank White & Ashley Moody

Florida will soon have a new attorney general who could dramatically shift priorities on provocative issues ranging from ex-felon voting rights to immigration and health care concerns.

Or, the status quo would remain at the now Republican-led AG’s office.

It will all be up to voters, starting with Tuesday’s primary election, and then the general election Nov. 6.

If a Democrat ultimately prevails, it would be the first time in 16 years that a member of that party would sit in the AG’s office, paving the way for significant changes. The two Democratic candidates – Tampa House Rep. Sean Shaw and Hillsborough County attorney Ryan C. Torrens – will face off in the primary Aug. 28.

The two Republican candidates — Pensacola state House Republican Frank White and former Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge Ashley Moody – also will compete in the Tuesday primary. Both are likely to take up the agenda that AG Pam Bondi set for eight years.  (Bondi isn’t running because of term limit restrictions.)

That agenda included opposing Constitutional Amendment 4 – on the November ballot — which would automatically restore voting rights to ex-felons who have served their sentences.

Moody and White also support Bondi’s court challenge (with a host of other GOP attorneys general) relating to the constitutionality of the federal Affordable Care Act, often referred to as Obamacare. And both Republican candidates support the state’s controversial Stand Your Ground law that has made headlines recently over the killing of a black man over a handicapped parking space.

Republican candidates differ with Bondi on some issues; get testy

In one notable instance, the Republican candidates strayed from Bondi’s stance on raising the age for Floridians to purchase a gun, from 18 to 21, which has led to an NRA lawsuit. That change stemmed from legislation related to the Parkland shootings in South Florida that led to the deaths of 17 students and staff members.

“As attorney general, your job is to defend newly passed laws by the Legislature,” White said, but not the parts that are “unconstitutional.”

He referred to the provision on the higher age to purchase a gun.

“You’re duty bound not to defend an unconstitutional law,” White said.

Moody said that many aspects of the legislation were “commendable” and will make a difference in preventing another gun-shooting tragedy. But she said raising the age from 18 to 21 to purchase a gun “would leave them (18, 19 and 20-year-olds) defenseless.”

AG Bondi endorsed Moody almost immediately after the former judge announced her candidacy, and has received the majority of  support from Republican sheriffs throughout the state.

But she’s been bashed by her GOP opponent in part because she initially registered as a Democrat years ago and once financially supported Democrat Bill McBride in his 2002 losing bid for governor to Jeb Bush.

White told the Phoenix last week that “Some politicians talk the talk in campaign season. I’m a lifelong conservative. Our voters always know where I stand based on my record.”

The 39-year-old White moved from Texas to Florida in 2010, where he became the chief financial officer and general counsel for the nine Sandy Sansing auto dealerships in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi owned by his wife’s family. He was elected to the state House in 2016.

Moody, 43, says she’s the only candidate with prosecutorial experience among the four major candidates in the race.

“You want somebody who you can trust in seeking truth and justice, ”Moody said. “You do not want someone attacking an opponent that will come out and just make blatant lies to further his own self interest, and I think the voters at the end of the day will see that.”

“She’s desperate,” White retorted, touting one poll that showed him up in the race. “It sounds like desperation to me.”

The winner of the Moody-White battle will take on the winner of the Sean Shaw/Ryan Torrens Democratic primary.

Democrats battle it out as poll numbers get closer

Shaw, 40, is a first-term state legislator representing Tampa in the Florida House and the son of Leander Shaw, the first black Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court.

He has been the prohibitive favorite from day one to be the party’s standard bearer in November, and he’s campaigned accordingly,
denying Torrens’ offers to debate and then suing to kick him off the ballot over campaign finance issues that Shaw contends should have disqualified Torrens from the race.

“I’m running on a platform of holding everyone accountable under the law,” Shaw told reporters earlier this month in Tallahassee. “If I don’t hold my primary opponent accountable, what does it mean when I’m telling people I’m going to hold the Legislature accountable, when I’m going to go after anyone doing wrong in this state? That’s what it looks like.”

Shaw had been campaigning with an imbued sense of confidence, with some polls saying he would win over either of the GOP candidates in the general election.

However, those polls never even included Torrens, and it was a shock last week to see a SurveyUSA poll show that the vast majority of
Democratic voters – 68 percent – remain undecided in the contest. And of those who do have an opinion, it’s a virtual tie, with Shaw at 15 percent and Torrens at 13 percent.

Shaw says if elected he’ll convene a task force to study gun violence, and he’d like to repeal the Stand Your Ground law, while
acknowledging that he’d need to convince a GOP-led Legislature to do so, which appears unlikely.

Torrens, 33, is a graduate of the University of Tampa and George Washington University law school in the nation’s capital. He announced early in his candidacy in 2017 that he would sue the big pharmaceutical companies to hold them accountable for the opioid crisis.

Like Shaw, Torrens strongly supports gun-control measures such as allowing local municipalities to enact gun ordinances, banning assault weapons. He also said he won’t defend the constitutionality of Stand Your Ground.

Consumer issues, liberalism and criticism of Shaw remarks

Shaw and Torrens say that recent Republican attorneys generals such as Bondi and Bill McCollum, who served from 2006 to 2010, haven’t been aggressive enough in protecting consumers in Florida.

Former Attorney General and Governor Charlie Crist agreed. He held the title of AG as a Republican from 2002-2006.

“I think that the consumer activism part of being attorney general is a very important role,” he said.

Crist also said he used the office as a cudgel on civil rights. A highlight of his one term in the office was the grand jury indictment of four deceased KKK members in 1966 who were behind a 1951 Christmas Day house bombing that killed civil rights activists Harry T. and Harriette Moore.

The Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) has always figured Shaw will be the nominee, and has periodically issued press releases warning how liberal he would be for Sunshine State denizens.

Recently the group blasted Shaw for comments in U.S. News & World Report , where he said that the powers of the attorney general would allow him to be unfettered by any other governmental body.

“You can just sue and go after people,” Shaw said. “You don’t have to run it up the flagpole or get a committee to do anything. You just do it.” RAGA said the statement showed a “clear disdain for the rule of law.”

Republican candidate Moody also said the comment was inappropriate.

“The attorney general is charged with enforcing and applying the rule of law and to the extent that Mr. Shaw says he is going to act outside of the scope of the law that people give him, it’s an absolutely fair criticism.”

Shaw doubled down upon hearing that anybody had an issue with his comment.

“You’re doggone right that I’m going to go after people who are doing wrong, and I’m going to make sure everyone is held accountable under the law,” Shaw said. “If the RAGA has a problem with that, they’re going to have a problem with me, because that’s the kind of AG that I intend to be.”

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.