4 Democrats vie for attorney general

Published: Sunday, September 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 31, 2002 at 11:31 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE - For 16 years, Attorney General Bob Butterworth has gone after television psychics such as Miss Cleo, outfits such as Publishers Clearinghouse, not to mention tobacco companies and Major League Baseball.
Butterworth leaves office this fall due to term limits. The four Democratic candidates seeking to succeed Butterworth are trying to convince voters that they would be the best to carry out the legacy of Florida's highest-ranking Democratic official.
State Sen. Buddy Dyer promises to go after corporate criminals. Tallahassee Mayor Scott Maddox wants to establish a medical crimes unit. Former Deputy Attorney George Sheldon and consumer advocate Walter Dartland insist they have the experience that will suit them best for the job.
But the four candidates vary greatly in qualifications and they also differ significantly on high profile issues such as the death penalty and gambling that will confront whoever is elected.
Because there is no runoff election this year the top vote getter in the Sept. 10 primary will face whoever wins the Republican primary.
Sheldon and Dartland The attorney general is already one of the most powerful positions in state government. The office oversees statewide prosecutions and can investigate fraud and other white-collar crimes. It also represents the state in death penalty appeals and defends laws passed by state legislators.
Starting next year, the attorney general will also oversee the state's nearly $100 billion pension system and help select the two officials who will regulate Florida's banking and insurance industries.
Two of the candidates seeking to succeed Butterworth - Sheldon and Dartland - have worked for him.
Sheldon, 55, is a former state legislator from Tampa who ran unsuccessfully for education commissioner two years ago. Sheldon says his experience as a deputy attorney general makes him the best prepared for the job.
"There's no time for on-the-job training," Sheldon said. "Who has the experience to take this job on day one?"
Sheldon wants to overhaul Florida's child welfare system, including making the attorney general's office responsible for defending the interests of the child instead the Department of Children and Families. He also wants legislators to hand over abuse investigations to law-enforcement agencies.
Sheldon also has been insistent that he will not defend any law passed by the Legislature that he feels is unconstitutional.
"The attorney general is not the Legislature's lawyer. It is not the governor's lawyer," Sheldon said. "It is the people's lawyer."
Dartland, 67, is a one-time prosecutor who earned a name for himself as a consumer advocate for Dade County when he sued Ford Motor Co. Dartland ran for attorney general in 1986, but after losing to Butterworth he went to work for him on two separate occasions. He has also served on the national boards of such groups as Common Cause and the Consumer Federation of America.
Dartland is running a long-shot campaign where he refuses to accept campaign donations. He says this will enable him to be a champion of consumers.
"Having run for office and having to collect money, I know the promises you have to make," Dartland said. "If you want support from the NRA or the unions and the businesses, you have to meet with them and commit to their agenda. I want to be able to say we will do what's right."
Dyer and Maddox The two outsiders seeking to replace Butterworth include two young yet seasoned Democratic politicians.
Dyer, 44, is an Orlando attorney who was first elected to the state Senate in 1992 and rose to the position of Senate Democratic leader. Dyer has stressed that his 15-year legal career gives him the background needed to become attorney general.
Dyer says that if he is elected he will push for lawmakers to enact state laws that will punish accounting firms and corporate officials that lie as well as stockbrokers that mislead investors.
Maddox is the youngest of the Democratic candidates, but the 34-year-old Tallahassee mayor was first elected in 1993 while still in law school. Maddox has proposed creating a new statewide position to investigate medical crimes. The new position would investigate allegations of overmedicating seniors and price gouging on prescription drugs.
Maddox, who has been a full-time mayor the last five years, has been rapped by some because of his limited legal experience. But Maddox insists he is the best to succeed Butterworth because he will continue to battle on behalf of consumers.
"You should pick someone who will be a fighter for you," said Maddox.
Differences on issues While the four Democratic candidates share similar viewpoints on the attorney general's role as a consumer watchdog, there are a handful of differences on other issues.
Dartland is the only candidate who is opposed to the death penalty, even though he says he will carry out the duties of the office to represent the state in death penalty appeals.
Dartland also says the state should not be able to impose the death penalty without a unanimous jury verdict. Today the death penalty can be imposed with a majority of jurors recommending the death penalty. Sheldon and Dyer are more cautious, saying the current system is constitutional. Dyer said he wants to study how unanimous jury verdicts are used in other states before committing to it.
Dyer says his main goal is to find ways to cut down on appeals so that death sentences can be imposed quicker.
The four candidates also differ on gambling. Butterworth was a dogged critic of any expansion of gambling in Florida. The state is now suing the federal government to block proposed rules that could lead to casinos operated by Indian tribes.
Sheldon and Dartland are adamantly opposed to any expansion of gambling. Dyer says he is opposed to casinos, but he supported legislation this past year to allow bigger pots at card rooms operated by dog and horse tracks.
"I didn't see that as a major expansion of gambling," said Dyer, who says he will review gambling proposals on a "case-by-case basis."
Maddox is even more pragmatic, saying it's too late to oppose gambling on moral grounds and that he would evaluate any expansion of gambling based on whether it would help the state.
"I think the cat's out of the bag on gambling," he said. "I would look at it based on what's best for Florida, not on moral grounds. You ought to give sway to what people in different areas want."
"This election will determine whether we will have a watchdog or a special interest lapdog," Dyer said.

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