Few Sparks as Attorney General Candidates Joust in lone debate

Posted at 1:52 PM, Oct 07, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-09 11:37:35-04

TAMPA BAY, FL (WTXL) -- Attorney General Pam Bondi defended Gov. Rick Scott's integrity and the state's ongoing fight against same-sex marriage in a brisk and mostly civil debate Monday with her general-election challengers, Democrat George Sheldon and Libertarian Bill Wohlsifer.

Topics included the medical-marijuana ballot proposal before voters this fall, the federal Affordable Care Act, the restoration of civil rights for felons, consumer protection, utility rate hikes, the expansion of gambling and the "stand your ground" self-defense law.

This was the only debate planned among the attorney general candidates, who made no apparent gaffes and offered mostly party-line positions on where they would take the office over the next four years.

Aired only Central Florida, the one-hour, tape-delayed event --- held before no audience --- was available Monday night on Bay News 9 in the Tampa area and News 13 in Orlando.

The candidates were often limited to between 30 seconds and 1 minute for their responses.

The nearest the candidates came to a dust-up was when they were asked about handling public corruption.

Sheldon said he'd have the office look into the governor's personal finances, based on a report by the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times that Scott provided different information on his state-required financial disclosure forms compared to the information submitted to the IRS and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

"I would call on the attorney general to begin to look at the discrepancy with Gov. Scott," Sheldon said.

Bondi shot back that Sheldon's comments were "how a politician talks, not an attorney general."

"To imply that our governor is corrupt, that is not appropriate for any candidate to say that, nor an attorney general to say that, based on a newspaper article," she continued.

The issue of same-sex marriage took on additional significance in the debate as the U.S. Supreme Court earlier in the day cleared the way for same-sex marriage in several states by declining to hear appeals.

Florida was not among those immediately impacted by the action. But Bondi, whose office is defending the state's gay-marriage ban in four cases, has maintained the state was awaiting the U.S. Supreme Court to settle the question of whether Florida's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage is constitutional.

Bondi said Monday there are additional cases that could reach the top federal court and "we're going to be reviewing everything in Florida to see what to do next."

However, Wohlsifer and Sheldon said the state should end the fight.

"The challenge has gone on too far," Wohlsifer said.

"Government ought to get out of the business of telling people who they can love," Sheldon said.

Sheldon and Wohlsifer also backed the proposed medical-marijuana constitutional amendment and the restoration of rights for many felons who have completed their sentences.

Bondi touted her efforts to crack down on human trafficking and synthetic drugs while saying she would carry out the medical-marijuana amendment if it is supported by voters but envisions "a pot clinic on every corner."

Bondi also labeled Sheldon a "Washington insider" and "career politician."

Sheldon, a former state lawmaker most recently was acting assistant secretary at the federal Administration for Children and Families within the Department of Health and Human Services.

Sheldon said Bondi has done little to protect utility customers, should "beef up the Medicaid fraud unit," and that he would push to change jury instructions regarding the controversial "stand your ground" law.

"The Trayvon Martin case, the movie theater shooting, the shooting because of the loud music, none of those were 'stand your ground' defenses and yet the jury was instructed on 'stand your ground,' " Sheldon said.

The self-defense law has been a flashpoint since the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, who was shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. While Zimmerman did not ask for "stand your ground" legal immunity, much of the debate following the shooting centered on the law. Zimmerman said he shot the unarmed black teenager in self-defense and was later acquitted of second-degree murder charges in Martin's death.

Wohlsifer, who has received just a few percentage points in some recent polls, said there may be a need for some "tweaking" to the "stand your ground." law, but also backed the rights of gun owners.

Bondi called for the debate moments after Sheldon defeated state Rep. Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale in the Aug. 26 Democratic primary. Sheldon, who lags behind Bondi in fundraising and in polls, requested up to five debates.