TAMPA — The two men hoping to take on Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi this November have sharp criticism for the way she handled her first term in office.
George Sheldon and Perry Thurston both say they could do a better job.
Before they get to take on Bondi directly, one has to get past the other during next month’s Democratic primary.
Thurston, 53, is the term-limited minority leader in the Florida House of Representatives. He is a third-generation resident of Broward County. He led a Democratic Party delegation that was throughly outnumbered in Tallahassee, leaving many of his legislative goals, such as expanding Medicaid coverage, to founder.
They are vying for a job as Florida’s top law enforcement officer, a job that comes with a salarty of $129,972 a year, a staff of about 1,000 and a seat alongside the governor, chief financial officer and commissioner of agriculture and community affairs.
Sheldon, 67, grew up in Plant City. He is a veteran legislator, former head of the state Department of Children and Families and former deputy attorney general under Democrat Bob Butterworth. He has returned to Florida after working as an assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C.
The two made a joint appearance in Tampa recently. They’ll appear together at a forum in Palm Beach on Aug. 14.
Both men say Bondi, a former assistant state attorney in Hillsborough County who is finishing her first four-year term, has spent too much time engaged in Republican politics at the national level and not enough time addressing the needs of Floridians.
They cite the multi-state legal challenge to Obamacare, which Bondi inherited from then-Attorney General Bill McCollum, as well as her decision to challenge the legality of a plan to clean up Chesapeake Bay — more than 600 miles from the Florida state line.
Ultimately, Bondi lost the Obamacare fight when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Affordable Care Act’s insurance mandate, enforced by a tax penalty, was legal.
“I don’t think that was the will of the people of the state of Florida,” Thurston said, speaking of the Bondi’s challenge. “That was a right-wing agenda.”
Bondi has made the Attorney General’s office more about her and less about the public, Sheldon and Thurston agreed, citing as examples her pursuit of a national agenda and her request that the state Departmment of Corrections delay a death row execution so she could attend a campaign fundraiser.
Bondi has made the Attorney General position too political, Sheldon said.
“I think it ought to be above the political fray,” Sheldon said. “The Attorney General’s Office ought to be the one moral pillar in state government.”
The national attention Bondi has attracted, including a speaking slot at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, has helped drive away potential GOP primary challengers and boost her campaign coffers.
As of the end of June, she had raised $2.2 million, nearly five times the amount Sheldon and Thurston have raised together. Tallahassee-based lawyer Bill Wohlsifer, running under the banner of the Libertarian Party of Florida, has raised $24,332.
As they focus on the Aug. 26 primary, Sheldon and Thurston together have raised less than $500,000 — $282,531 for Sheldon and $168,181 for Thurston, according to the Florida Elections Commission.
Sheldon has spent all but about $6,700 of that so far. Thurston still has more than $100,000 as the primary approaches.
Sheldon expects the winner of the primary to have an easier time raising money between then and early November.
“I feel comfortable that we will be competitive going into the general election,” Sheldon said.
But he acknowledges that Bondi has the advantage.
“The smart money always goes with the incumbent,” he said.
Meantime, as they compete for the attention of Florida’s 4.5 million Democrats, the two men are pitching their primary race as a choice between experience and fresh blood.
“Mr. Sheldon has served the community well, and it’s time to move forward,” Thurston said.
Thurston said his time in Tallahassee makes him the logical choice to take on the state’s current Republican political machinery.
“I know what the flaws in the argument they’re going to make are,” Thurston said.
Sheldon, who began his political career in the state House in 1974, said his diverse experience over 40 years in public office gives him a valuable perspective on the way the attorney general’s office should work.
“Having been deputy attorney general under Butterworth, I know what that office can be,” Sheldon said. “It can really be one of the strongest advocates for consumer protection around.”
On that, Sheldon and Thurston agree.
“The attorney general’s job is to be the fighter for the people,” Thurston said.