A lot has been made this year about how, once again, Florida Democrats appear outgunned when it comes to the Cabinet races.
While the party has had to rely on a former Republican to challenge Rick Scott's bid for re-election for governor, it has also had its problems fielding candidates to challenge Jeff Atwater for Chief Financial Officer and Adam Putnam for Agriculture Commissioner.
But they actually have candidates with impressive credentials running against each other for the opportunity to challenge Attorney General Pam Bondi in the fall, even though the nominee — either Perry Thurston or George Sheldon — will be a decided underdog against the well-financed Republican in November.
The two Democratic AG candidates stood next to each other and fielded questions from a predominantly African-American audience on Saturday at the Hillsborough County Black Caucus forum in a North Tampa church, and if one came to the event hoping to find a reason to choose one candidate over the other, it would have to be more on style than substance, since both men echoed each other again and again in their response to the questions they encountered.
For example, they both strongly support Amendment 2 on the ballot this November. Sheldon, who was first elected to represent Tampa in the state legislature back in the 1970s, says he's been in support of medical marijuana for over 30 years. He's run (and lost) a number of state races in recent years, but has major experience working as an appointed official in the Attorney General's office, the Dept. of Children and Families (chosen by Charlie Crist to lead that troubled agency) and, most recently, serving in Washington with the Dept. of Health & Human Services.
The 52-year-old Thurston hails from Broward County and served this past year in the Legislature as the Democratic House Leader. He condemns efforts to privatize state prisons and juvenile detention facilities, and says it's important for first-time teen offenders to be given citations, and not arrests which put them in the criminal justice system, also known as the "school to prison pipeline."
Both men criticized last year's "Timely Justice Act,
" which among its provisions sets a deadline of 30 days for the governor to sign a death warrant once an inmate’s appeals become final. "I stood up on the House floor and said it was the wrong thing," Thurston said on Saturday. Sheldon said the death penalty disproportionately applies to people of color and "we need to fundamentally rethink that," later adding that "we have to make sure everybody has access to more than adequate, and competent legal services."
Voting rights is a huge issue for the black community nationwide and certainly in Florida, something that both Democrats said is why they support the automatic restoration of civil rights for ex-felons. "It's a crying shame that this Attorney General [Bondi] went up against the executive order of then-Governor Crist that allows some type of remedy when you've done your time," Thurston said, blasting Governor Scott as well in the process.
"I believe the Attorney General is the people's lawyer — not the governor's lawyer, and not the Legislature's lawyer," said Sheldon. "The first responsibility is to the U.S. Constitution." He said that with a new governor and new AG in office come next January, the state will return to the automatic restoration of civil rights for those who have served their time.
Among the laws that Florida has on the books that distinguishes itself from most of the rest of the country is regarding what type of mandate there needs to be to get a death-penalty conviction. The Sunshine State permits a 7-5 jury decision to be sufficient to grant a death sentence. "I support a unanimous decision out of the jury," said Sheldon.
The latest fundraising totals between the two candidates before the August 26 primary favor Thurston. As of the end of June, Sheldon had raised $267,901.50, but spent $261,276.21, giving him a net of less than $7,000. Thurston has raised less ($166,006) but spent only $59,580, giving him more than $100,000 to spend with six weeks to go before the primary.
The winner goes on to face Bondi, who has raised more than $1.4 million as of the end of June.