Florida Republicans are turning Attorney General contest into race to the right

Tampa Bay Times
February 6th, 2018
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In the four-way Republican primary for attorney general, the GOP is again being pulled toward the right and ideological purity.

The four candidates are roughly equally matched in statewide name recognition — none of them has much — and as they battle to emerge from the pack, the shootout is turning tough early.

If there is a frontrunner, it might be former circuit Judge Ashley Moody of Plant City, who faces three Republican state House members: Jay Fant of Jacksonville, Ross Spano of Dover and Frank White of Pensacola.

But that impression by some party insiders comes from evidence that’s not conclusive: Moody’s early fundraising lead; her endorsements from 33 Republican sheriffs, 10 state attorneys and outgoing Attorney General Pam Bondi; and being the only woman in a four-way race.

The only published polling, a robopoll by StPetePolls.org last month, showed a wide-open race with 69 percent undecided, Moody at 10 percent, Fant 9 percent, Spano 6 percent and White 4 percent.

What is clear is that Moody is a target for Fant and White, who are blasting her in an internet, direct mail and news release campaign as a “liberal judge,” closet Democrat and anti-Trump.

Spano, who didn’t file until after the attacks on Moody had begun, and who shares friends and allies with her in their east Hillsborough County home base, has avoided joining in.

Moody is fighting back by emphasizing her own experience in law enforcement, as a judge and prosecutor, which the other three, though all lawyers, don’t have.

It the primary a race to the right?

“I hope so,” said Fant in an interview after a forum for the candidates last weekend.

None of the four is what most people would call a liberal.

All have proclaimed themselves backers of gun rights, opponents of abortion, and in favor of the “sanctuary cities” bill House Speaker Richard Corcoran is seeking to push through the Legislative.

In an Orlando forum Saturday before a large crowd of conservative lawyers and judges in the Federalist Society:

— White, who repeatedly proclaims himself “a consistent and principled conservative,” promised to protect Florida from “threats from the left, from liberals – Democratic and Republican alike.”

— Spano promised to “check the power of the government that has begun to usurp in our individual lives” citing the Affordable Care Act and environmental regulations, and spoke emotionally of his opposition to abortion and the Roe v. Wade decision.

— Fant said he “may be the only tort reformer in the House of Representatives” and spoke of his relationship with Trump.

— Moody promised to oppose “over-regulation,” praised “my friend Gov. Scott” and said she supports Trump and his agenda.

But Moody appeared to be the top target on the stage, as Fant and White repeated charges they’ve lodged against her.

The back-and-forth got about as heated as it could in front of a crowd of well-dressed judges and lawyers in a huge Disney hotel banquet hall.

“I felt like I was back in junior high school,” said Spano.

Previously, Fant had publicly demanded, to no avail, that Moody be barred from a December state Republican Party meeting, contending she’s not a genuine Republican.

His evidence: Her family was part of a 2010 fraud lawsuit against The Trump Organization over the failed Trump Tower Tampa condominium, in which dozens of buyers lost their deposits and sued; former President Bill Clinton appointed Moody’s father to a federal judgeship; and she once worked as an assistant to then-American Bar Association President Martha Barnett of Tampa, a Democrat, who recently co-hosted a fundraiser for Moody.

He repeated those charges in form of questions directed at Moody during the forum, adding that she had donated to Democrat Bill McBride against Republican Jeb Bush in the 2002 campaign for governor.

Moody responded the litigation “has nothing to do with me being a conservative or me supporting our president and his conservative agenda” and called the attacks “unworthy of the office of Attorney General.”

White pointedly asked Moody whether she supports allowing open carry of firearms on government property including college campuses, which many state law enforcement officers, including some sheriffs backing Moody, oppose.

In the forum, she didn’t answer directly, saying she would have to see specifics of the legislation. Later, however, a campaign spokeswoman said Moody does support campus carry.

When he couldn’t ask Moody another question because of the forum rules, Fant still found a way to go after her —he asked the only Democrat at the forum, consumer lawyer Ryan Torrens of Tampa, “What positions do you share with Judge Moody?”

Torrens simply said he didn’t know — “I’m running as my own man.”

White has sent out a mailer attacking Moody on the same allegations that she’s tainted by a Democratic past, and set up a web site, “Liberaljudge.com.”

Moody wasn’t the only target in the forum.

She and Spano, a civil lawyer, used questions to highlight Fant’s comparative lack of experience practicing law – he’s chairman of a bank – and White’s comparative lack of experience in criminal law.

Fant responded that policy and executive experience are key to the job, and said business and management experience matter. White said the most important qualification is to be “a principled and consistent conservative.”

Asked whether they were criticizing her because she’s a frontrunner, Fant and White denied it.

White said the voters haven’t had time to form meaningful opinions yet, and Fant said, “Despite her protestations, she’s the leftward candidate.”

Both said they doubted that gender will affect the outcome in a Republican primary as it might in a Democratic primary, but Spano disagreed.

“There aren’t as many women in politics, and all other things being equal, a certain percentage even among the Republican electorate might say let’s give the woman a chance,” he said.

In an interview, Moody didn’t claim the title of frontrunner but said of the attacks, “Sometimes that indicates who people believe has the best chance of success.”

Her experience as a former judge and prosecutor sets her apart, she said.

“I think there’s going to have to be a response from my opponents as to why they don’t have the same support from the law enforcement community.”

As of the end of December, Moody, who filed in June just after Fant, had raised the most money from other contributors, about $1.5 million in her campaign, an independent committee and financial aid from the state party.

White, who filed in November, has raised about $2 million including $1.5 million from himself.

Fant has raised about $292,000 and loaned his campaign $750,000.

Spano, the latest to file in the race, has raised about $99,000 in his campaign and independent committee.

During AG debate, Ashley Moody, Jay Fant go after each other over ‘liberal’ attacks

February 3rd, 2018
Florida Politics
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Former circuit court judge Ashley Moody and state Rep. Jay Fant went after each other hard Saturday over third-party ads charging her as “liberal,” exchanging charges during an Attorney General’s forum held during the Federalist Society Conference at Walt Disney World Saturday.

Moody and Fant were among four Republicans and one Democrat debating their campaigns for this year’s election. And while much of the debate focused on who could stake out the most conservative positions on legal issues – the answer never was Democrat Ryan Torrens, by the way – toward the end, the discussion turned personal and heated.

In front of about 400 lawyers and judges who are members of the conservative legal society at the Disney Yacht Club Resort, Moody questioned Fant about attacks on her in mailers and in other forms, which she said were false. His reply was to insist they weren’t attacks, to challenger her to say what was false, and to tell her to get used to it.

“This is what we do in the big leagues,” Fant said.

Florida Politics had reported earlier that another of the candidates, state Rep. Frank White of Pensacola, appeared to be behind the independent political committee attacks, and at one point Fant denied being behind the mailers that Moody cited. But while White and the fourth Republican, state Rep. Ross Spano of Dover, and Torrens, a private lawyer in Tampa, mostly just listened, Moody, of Tampa, laid it on Fant Saturday. And the Jacksonville representative didn’t back down.

In a debate round in which the candidates were permitted to ask questions of each other, Moody started by saying that Fant had, in a House primary election campaign, pledged to not attack a fellow Republican, and she asked of him, “I have been repeatedly attacked in this race, and I was wondering how you reconcile that with your earlier pledge from your previous race?”

Fant, who had challenged her conservative and Republican credentials before, replied to her question by calling her a “newcomer to partisan politics,” and lecturing her that, “the issues matter, and just because the issues make you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean you’re being attacked.

“I might also add I’m not the only campaign that has discussed this contrast. There is more to this. So if you’re going to support a Bill McBride over Jeb Bush, we’re going to talk about it. If you’re going to have a history of suing Donald Trump, we’re going to talk about it. If you have alliances with liberals in the bar, we’re going to have to talk about it.”

“Misleading!” Moody interrupted.

“These are not attacks. They are contrasts,” Fant continued.

“Misleading, misleading campaign fliers from multiple campaigns are attacks. Misinformation from multiple campaigns are attacks,” Moody replied. “And I would just ask that all campaigns when disseminating informant, make sure that it is factually based.”

“I’m talking about mailers. I’m talking about attacks in this race that are unjustified, misinformed, and misleading,” she added. “I believe that we need to stick to the facts. We need to stick to what makes us conservatives. And we need to stick to keeping the debate true among Republicans, and not attacking unjustifiably in any primary.”

At some point while they bickered, the moment evolved into Moody answering Fant’s question. After all, he had the next turn, and his question essentially was, “What’s false about any of it?”

“It is important that we all remember as voters that information and facts are important. Moody said. “I was involved in litigation with Mr. Trump years ago regarding a condominium development that never camp to fruition. That has nothing to do with me being a conservative, or me supporting our president and his conservative agenda in Washington,” she said. “And to put forth information in mailers that would say otherwise, to give yourself name recognition, or a leg up in a primary, is just unworthy of the office of Attorney General,” Moody said.

That answer drew applause. In fact, she drew two rounds of applause during her responses on the matter. Otherwise, during the 90-minute forum, audience reactions had been quite rare, except for a couple of occasions when people laughed at Torrens’ sometimes provocatively-Democratic answers in previous rounds of questions.

After Moody drew her first applause, Fant replied, “I have compiled no mailers in my campaign. You may be referring to another campaign at this table, and you could direct this question to them. But I have yet to understand what is inaccurate about what has been represented by me. You have sued Donald Trump for fraud. I know you don’t like it. But it is a fact, and it is part of a campaign.”

And that’s when he told her, “Ultimately, this is what we do in the big leagues.”

For much of the rest of the debate, the four Republicans sought to boast their conservative credentials, while Torrens offered mostly dramatically different responses, though on a couple of occasions, notably on the inner workings of the attorney general’s office and its use of outside counsel on cases, he agreed with some of the Republicans.

Among the most telling rounds of responses came when the five candidates were asked if they could imagine a scenario in which they would refuse to defend a state law.

The question raised issues of whether, as attorney general of Florida, how they would respond if they were called to enforce a law they objected to ethically or morally, when they had taken an attorney general oath to defend the laws of the state.

“I would frankly have to resign,” Spano offered. “I’m a big believer in natural law. And so I do believe there is a fundamental connection between law and some sense or notion of morality…. However, if there were an issue like that, that would be my approach.”

Fant said simply “No there’s not,” such a scenario in which he would not defend the state law.

White, who earlier argued that the attorney general should push back against what he called excesses of “the administrative state,” or should help Trump fight against “the deep state” at the federal level, allowed that there might be situations where the “administrative state” pushes a law too far.

“My client as attorney general isn’t the regulator. My client as attorney general is the people,” White said.

Moody, the former judge, declared that “As the chief legal officer, if I take that oath and the Legislature passes that law, I will go into court and do my job that the voters gave me to do. And if there is authority, and we all know as legal officers, if there is authority that I believe works against my argument I would have the duty to present that to the court. I would do my job.”

Torrens took a more activist role, saying “I could see a situation where the Legislature passes a law trampling on people’s constitutional rights,” particularly involving minority rights. “I feel if it is my independent determination that the law did in fact trample on people’s constitutional rights then I can see a situation where I would decline to enforce it.”

Jay Fant presses Senate on sanctuary cities legislation ahead of bill’s first committee hearing

On Tuesday afternoon, the Florida Senate Judiciary Committee will be the first Senate panel to mull the sanctuary cities ban bill (HB 9) that passed the House already.

And one of the House co-sponsors of that measure — Jacksonville Republican Jay Fant, a candidate for Attorney General — sent an email to supporters last night, urging them to sign a petition of support for the ban, and to contact senators on Judiciary to make their feelings known.

“Sanctuary cities are home to illegal immigrants and are extremely dangerous. We need all the supporters we can get to sign our petition and keep our state, and our country, safe,” Fant writes in the email.

Fant also offers a 30-second video in the email that he released for his AG campaign.

“The difference between immigration and illegal immigration is that illegal immigration is illegal,” Fant asserts. “Elected officials who prop up this paradigm of illegal immigration need to be prosecuted. They’re breaking the law.”

Fant is the second statewide politician to release a video this week inveighing against sanctuary jurisdictions.

The political committee of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, widely expected to run for Governor once the Legislative Session wraps, spent $100,000 on an ad buy warning against the dangers of sanctuary cities.

Some might say these are quixotic positions, as there are no sanctuary jurisdictions in Florida.

However, certain Democratic mayors, such as St. Petersburg’s Rick Kriseman and Tallahassee’s Andrew Gillum, have indicated conceptual support for the sanctuary concept.

For Republican politicians attempting to build name identification with the kinds of super voters who turn out for and decide GOP primaries, taking a strong stance on the sanctuary city issue is essential, as Corcoran and Fant clearly believe.

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