The recent senate bill 6, which grades teacher salary based on student performance, has dominated the legislature for the past three and a half months, and drawn ire from both parties. The Democratic party, with its historic defense of teachers union, has been particularly vocal in its opposition, and this trend has extended to the party candidates for attorney general, Dave Aronberg and Dan Gelber. Luckily, the controversy has granted a boon to the attorney general’s race: Aronberg and Gelber have made public statements in legislative session opposing the bill with articulated arguments that show their legislative and legal reasoning for opposing the bill. Even better, both Aronberg and Gelber’s speeches are on Youtube. Click on the links and decide for yourselves.
(On March 29th, the Democratic candidates for Attorney General Dan Gelber and Dave Aronberg held an open forum debate at the St. Petersburg Marriott Hotel. Invited were members of the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, a club for political aficionados, and any guests willing to pay $30 for the tickets. This is Part Two of our report of the event, and is meant to capture the feel and emotional content of that meeting.)
The setting of the debate is exquisitely decorated, I think as I walk into the Marriott. This hotel chain actually knows it is first class and lives up to its name. I put on my Guest Sticker and am told by the receptionist that I may sit anywhere.
There are several round tables filling up with people, mostly old and overdressed. I am tempted to sit at the Young Tigers table, which is filled with college students my age, until they actually enter. Each one has the mannerisms of second-generation wealth and is immaculately dressed, the men in particular, actually. I am wearing jeans and a nicely pressed collar buttoned shirt, but the only person in the room dressed more proletarian than me is the fat, coffee spilling reporter in the back. Feeling out of place, I simply sit in one of the ordinary tables.
Now Aronberg and Gelber enter the room. The gaits and styles of the two candidates are remarkably different. Aronberg, a young 39, possesses a thrusting manner; he reaches for your hand and grips it with enthusiasm. He is the rare candidate who is handsomer in person than on TV or in pictures; on his website he reminds one of Ray Liotta from Goodfellas. Gelber, on the other hand, appears and acts in life much the same as in his campaign videos: a slightly balding man of 53 who remains somewhat physically detached while shaking your hand, despite a strong grip. Gelber has mastered the image of the doting, scholarly uncle, which makes him warm in person in a genuine-feeling way. However his aloof manner robs his speech of the same level of emphasis and linguistic effect as Aronberg. Both candidates shake my hand and promise an interview.
One odd thing: Aronberg is friendly with the Young Tigers and has a radio interview lined up with them, his manner is extremely easy. On the other hand, Gelber seems slightly less uncomfortable than I am, and, unlike Aronberg, he did not arrive alone. Two young aides flank him into the conference room and take their special seats near the back. One of them, Daniel Rubin, is his official campaign manager.
The table I am sitting at is remarkably oblivious to the campaign. The woman sitting on my right, Teresa Bryant, asks which candidate is the Republican. After I reply to her question that this is a democratic primary, I turn to my other neighbor, one Susie Rodenbeck, and ask “do you know anything about these men at all?”
“No,” she replies, “but Mr. Gelber? He’s a State Senator.”
Both men are State Senators.
Incidentally, the Tiger Bay Club prides itself on its active civic involvement and thorough research and questioning of political candidates.
The debate begins, and largely follows a Lincoln-Douglas format, with both candidates given a chance to respond to questions. Questions pointed towards a particular candidate go to that candidate first, then his opponent responds. Both candidates give an opening statement and a closing statement. (Since when closing the order of speakers is reversed, Senator Aronberg both opened and closed the debate.)
The opening statements are eerily familiar to anyone who has followed these campaigns. Aronberg emphasizes his love for the position of Attorney General (which he does throughout the entire debate), and throws a subtle shot at Senator Gelber, implying, though not stating explicitly, that Gelber has only used this campaign to boost his connections for a future US Senate race. One particular point of interest is Aronberg’s description of his own senate district, district 27, which begins on the East Coast, but ends in Lee County, which touches the Western edge of Florida. Only 39% of the registered voters there are Republicans, yet Aronberg continues to win elections there. Whether by established fundraising or aggressive campaigning, this is impressive and sounds genuine. At his best, Aronberg comes off as a true moderate/liberal statesman, but at his worst, the charisma and anecdotes make everything sound staged.
Aronberg is a master of the anecdote, and uses specific examples when he answers questions. When in doubt he leans on his previous experience as Assistant AG to Bob Butterworth. Aronberg mentioned Butterworth’s contributions no less than three times during his conclusion, and pitted the previous Democratic AG’s commitment to his office against McCollum’s perceived use of it for political profiteering. “It hurts me,” Aronberg says later in the debate, “when I see a great office tarnished in this manner.”
Gelber’s style is more systemic. As Aronberg opened with anecdotes about campaigning in Lee County, Gelber took the moment to describe general political trends in the state of Florida, particularly in the area of medicine; Aronberg’s stellar record in consumer advocacy forces Gelber to emphasize his former prosecutorial experience and legislative efforts; Gelber makes frequent references to bills he has sponsored, and he does not give Senate numbers as he did in the October session. This helps the audience, but it also means that they cannot look things up. His style is subdued, and my table paid more attention to the nuances of his remarks than Aronberg’s. This prevents Gelber from sounding fake, and at his best, Gelber projects an aura of mature judgement, but at his worst the man just sounds confused if not mechanical.
But there is a flaw in the question session. Most of the questions do not comment on the candidate’s previous positions or stated beliefs, but on general problems in the state of Florida. This allows for roughly general answers that avoid self-critique and allow a candidate to attack his opponent without mercy, whatever the situation. Since these two have chosen to drop the hatchet for the primary, that enemy would be Bill McCollum:
“Bill McCollum has repeatedly failed to check the rapid growth of pill mills in the state of Florida. Today there are more prescription drug vendors in Broward county than McDonalds and Walmarts combined.” – Aronberg, in response to a question on Florida prescription drug laws.
“This frivolous lawsuit has blinded the state Attorney’s office to its actual responsibilities, which include supporting seniors pro bono when faced with medical and real estate litigation (i.e. eviction charges). I promise not to waste the attorney’s office’s time with political stunts.” -Gelber, during his conclusion.
There are multiple such question/answer exchanges during the debate. The one exception is one I (flips collar sexily) plant.
Mr. Ray Neri, a local community activist, wished to know before the debate what kind of question he should ask the candidates. So I gave him a question concerning Gelber’s proposed lawsuit to recoup educational expenses from the State of Florida. During the meeting, Neri dutifully asked how an Attorney General can sue his own State.
Gelber’s reaction is laudable, as he capably links his statement to previous “high quality paramount” language in the Florida senate education bills: With Florida’s educational system failing the intent of the bill and expenses not getting paid, the legislature should be made to pay for the lost excellence and funds, runs his logic. Yet one can tell he does not want to answer the question.
Aronberg nearly molests the microphone as he rushes to respond. He quickly cites an identical lawsuit filed six months before the debate, and says that the most irresponsible thing an Attorney General could do would be to file his own “frivolous lawsuit, which would cause massive legal jeopardy to these aggrieved parents.” (Ouch.) He forcefully concludes that the AG should support the existing lawsuit, and manages to sit down with emphasis…somehow.
In retrospect, it was a stupid question. Any legal advisor would have stopped such a ridiculous action and Gelber was probably only trying to rally the troops. The question also gave Aronberg a cheap shot with no risk to his own position, though his response made him look less-than trustworthy, given the supposed high-minded nature of the debate. Oh well. Perhaps Senator Gelber will learn not to make asinine political statements at dinners from now on.
The rest of the debate is uneventful…except for my interviews in the end. Or lack of ones.
I spend several minute talking to Gelber’s campaign manager Mr. Rubin, who eyes me as if in the next moment I am either going to defecate on the carpet, try to attack his candidate, or do both simultaneously. During the debate Senator Gelber gave no concrete examples of laws he had supported or cases he remembered from his prosecutorial days. I ask Mr. Rubin for such information, as a profound memory of a personal encounter with criminality or malpractice gives a lot of insight into a candidate, especially one running for AG. Rubin refuses to give such information, though he allows me to ask Mr. Gelber personally. I try to talk to him as he exits the hotel.
“Can you remember a case you worked on that really moved you sir, a specific one?”
“Hm, not really…there was this one case of insurance fraud, and we did take out that gang that one time. There were a bunch.” He looks away.
“Sir, Mr. Aronberg up there gave a lot of good anecdotes, you need to give me at least one. Just give me a name. Its public information.”
“Sorry, can’t think of any. Goodbye, we need to catch our flight.”
They walk away. I rush upstairs to meet Mr. Aronberg, who is talking to a club board member. I wait for him to finish his conversation, but as I approach, the lady stops me.
“Excuse me sir, were you on the Pinellas school board?”
What? I’m 20! “No ma’am, I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“I’m sure I’ve seen you there?”
She turns away with a muffled apology, and I turn to interview Mr. Aronberg.
Who has left the room. I search the outside. No one. He has vanished into thin air with my interview.
On Tuesday, attorney general candidates Dan Gelber and Dave Aronberg participated in an open square forum at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, an organization composed of political hobbyists and upper-class civic leaders and activists. The debate was intended to promote the images of the two candidates, who are not widely known outside of their respective districts.
The Tiger Bay Club is a nonpartisan organization, and it showed in the breadth of the issues discussed. One club member, Linda Lerner, asked the two Democratic candidates about tort reform. Aronberg minimized, pointing out that Florida’s “number of medical lawsuits has not increased for the past four years, and that is according to the Florida Medical Association”, and supported the state’s current hybrid system of tort regulation. Gelber redirected, claiming that Republican state efforts at further tort reform merely “attempt to protect insurers without giving thought to doctors or consumers.”
The two Senators made conscious efforts not to attack each other, although there were the usual parting blows. A question from Ray Neri, a local activist, concerned an earlier announcement by Gelber at a Polk County dinner/fundraiser. Gelber proposed filing a lawsuit as AG against the state of Florida to obtain owed educational funds (linked here).
Gelber defended his statement, but Aronberg took the opportunity to plant a clean blow. “There is already an existing lawsuit, filed 6 months ago, by the parents of the state of Florida, that deals with this issue, and any further legal action would jeopardize this effort. The Attorney General’s office should not waste time filing pointless actions but support this existing lawsuit.” (We have yet to confirm the existence of this lawsuit.)
The Senators’ attacks remained reserved for Bill McCollum, as Aronberg and Gelber renewed their assaults on both the existing lawsuit against Obama’s health-care bill, which both Gelber and Aronberg deemed “frivolous”, and, more extensively, on McCollum’s perceived unwillingness to use the Attorney General’s office to protect consumers. Indeed, Gelber and Aronberg launched blistering attacks on a variety of issues including prescription drug “pill mills”, rising gang violence rates, and insurance fraud, which they claimed McCollum has not addressed. Concerning a rash of medical insurance defaults against seniors in the state, Aronberg lamented “most seniors do not know that they can call the Attorney General’s office and ask him to represent their legal interests in the event of legal action against them by insurers.” Gelber added that McCollum appears “more concerned with becoming Governor than actively defending Floridian interests.”
After the debate, it appeared that the Tiger Bay members and guests commended the performances of the two candidates. Mr. Neri commented “at least this time we don’t have to choose between two schlubs. ‘Cause it’s always sad when there is a good guy and a schlubs, and it turns out the schlub wins.”
For a more emotional, intuitive analysis of the Gelber Aronberg debate, see part 2.
While Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio have captivated the attention of Floridians with their efforts to show voters who has the bigger Reagan mancrush, a feisty four-way dance is heating up in the battle for Florida’s Attorney General gavel on the G.O.P side.
The most recognizable name among the four is Jeff Kottkamp, who serves as Florida’s lieutenant governor. Kottkamp, who furnished his legal career as a personal injury lawyer, is considered the most politically experienced, and he has the ethics rap sheet to prove it. He raised eyebrows across the state when it was reported that he tapped state travel funds for an FHP plane to get to a Kenny Loggins concert in Atlanta. (When the mastermind behind “Danger Zone” is playing in the outskirts of your backyard, tell me you wouldn’t go through hell, high water and ethical credibility to hear the voice that gives America hope of a Tom Cruise before Scientology? If it was Rick Asbury, he could’ve burned down a few orphanages with the jet fuel.)