Republicans battle for attorney general
Published: Sunday, September 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 31, 2002 at 11:32 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE - The next attorney general of Florida will be responsible for dealing with such important issues as the death penalty, gambling and consumer protection.
But for the three Republican candidates seeking to become attorney general there's only one issue: Who is the best-qualified candidate?
Solicitor General Tom Warner maintains his legal background makes him best suited for the job, while state Sen. Locke Burt touts his law-enforcement endorsements and managerial experience running an insurance company. Education Commissioner Charlie Crist contends he has a record that shows he will battle on behalf of consumers.
But Warner and Burt have openly questioned whether Crist has the skills to be attorney general. Warner even put up campaign billboards pointing out that Crist needed to take the Florida Bar exam three times before becoming a lawyer. Crist has countered that the two other candidates are desperate since they trail in fund-raising and lack his name recognition.
The race is expected to become nastier between now and Sept. 10 when Republican voters will head to the polls. The winner will face one of four Democrats running to succeed outgoing Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who is leaving because of term limits.
Plenty of experience
Each of the three Republicans running comes with plenty of political experience.
Burt, 54, runs an insurance business in Ormond Beach, but the state legislator first elected in 1991 has pushed several significant criminal justice laws during his tenure. He was the lead sponsor of death penalty reforms that switched Florida from the electric chair to lethal injection in 2001.
Burt has been endorsed by 37 sheriffs and two law-enforcement unions. But Burt says his time spent running a company and his financial background will help him with new duties the attorney general will inherit next year. The attorney general will help oversee the state's nearly $100 billion pension plan and select people to regulate the state's banking and insurance industries.
"I think I have the broadest range of experience," said Burt, who has a law degree and a master's degree in business administration. "I am the most qualified, given my management experience and my training in finance."
Crist, 46, was elected the state's education commissioner in 2000. Crist was in the state Senate from 1992 until 1998 when he waged a losing bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.
Crist is telegenic and very able at drawing television cameras. He earned the nickname "Chain-Gang Charlie" by trying to force the state to reintroduce chain gangs. He went after former Gov. Lawton Chiles for making scare calls during the 1994 election.
Crist says a lawsuit he once filed to try to stop a rate increase by Florida Power & Light shows that he will be an advocate for consumers.
"I think the record shows I have a passion for public safety and working for the people," Crist said.
The 54-year-old Warner still works for Butterworth as the state's first-ever solicitor general. Warner, who was a state legislator from Stuart for seven years, took the job defending constitutional civil cases in 1999. While a legislator, Warner was one of the prime sponsors of a law that limited lawsuits against businesses.
Warner, a one-time football player at the University of Florida, has practiced law for more than 25 years and stresses that he alone among the three Republican candidates has been an active lawyer.
"The attorney general is the lawyer for the people of the state of Florida," said Warner. "That's what I know best. That's what I do best."
Maintaining a legacy
Each of the three Republicans maintains they would keep Butterworth's legacy intact and actively work of behalf of consumers.
Each of the three candidates, however, voted in 1995 in favor of legislation that would have made it harder for Butterworth to sue tobacco companies to recover money spent treating poor smokers. Gov. Lawton Chiles vetoed the legislation and ultimately Florida received a $13.1 billion settlement from tobacco companies.
Warner says he voted for the legislation because he felt that the "process had been violated" because the 1994 law that cleared the way for the lawsuit was snuck into a bill late at night.
Burt says he still has a problem with how Florida changed the law so tobacco companies could not rely on traditional legal defenses.
"If you believe cigarettes are killing people then you ought to ban cigarettes or increase taxes," Burt said. "I looked at it as taking away someone's legal defenses, and I was concerned it would happen to other products."
Crist, who held hearings grilling Butterworth over how he selected outside lawyers to represent the state in the tobacco lawsuit, said he could not remember voting for the bill that would have made it harder to sue tobacco companies.
"I have to get back with you on it," said Crist before adding, "I think the general did the right thing. I was quite pleased that they were able to be successful on behalf of the people of Florida."
The death penalty
While all three candidates are in favor of the death penalty, they disagree on whether any changes should be made to Florida's system. The attorney general is responsible for representing the state in all death penalty appeals.
Warner says Florida should require a unanimous jury verdict in favor of the death penalty. Now a jury can recommend a death sentence by a majority vote. Crist said he was unsure about whether the state should require a unanimous jury verdict, but said he in favor of anything that could speed up the pace of executions, including more DNA testing of inmates.
"The greatest frustration in Florida with the death penalty are the delays," Crist said. "Justice delayed is justice denied."
Burt, however, is opposed to any changes. He says that if legislators continue to tinker with the law it will trigger additional legal challenges by those on Death Row.
"I think the system is working well," Burt said.
As a legislator, Warner pushed the idea of expanding the Florida Supreme Court from seven justices to nine justices in order to handle cases quicker. He said he thinks the idea still has merit. Warner also has suggested that Florida needs to set up a system where there are prosecutors, public defenders and judges who specialize in death penalty cases.
"The reason we have people on Death Row for a long time is that their cases are sent back and resentenced because of errors," Warner said.
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