The three candidates for Florida Attorney General sat down Monday for their first and possibly only debate, and they sparred on everything from medical marijuana to same sex marriage to the expansion of gambling.
Republican incumbent Pam Bondi, Democrat George Sheldon and Libertarian Bill Wohlsifer were civil and cordial in the hour-long forum, which was recorded in the Bay News 9 studios and shown on the station Monday night.
But their rhetoric got heated at times, such as when Sheldon answered a question about whether public corruption is a problem in Florida with an accusatory reference to Republican Gov. Rick Scott's finances.
Referring to story in Sunday's Tampa Bay Times that raised questions about whether Scott's financial reporting could be hiding conflicts of interest, Sheldon said he would "call on the Attorney General to begin to look at what this discrepancy is with Gov. Scott between what he said on his financial disclosure to the state and what he said on his SEC filing."
Bondi was given a chance to respond and said, "That's how a politician talks, not an Attorney General. ... To imply that our governor is corrupt, that's not appropriate for any candidate to say, nor an attorney general to say that, based on a newspaper article."
Moderators Al Ruechel of Bay News 9, Ybeth Bruzual of sister station News 13 in Orlando and Adam Smith from the Times asked 17 questions of the candidates. The candidates' answers mostly fell along political lines, although Bondi tried to focus more on her record of fighting pill mills and human trafficking than political ideology.
The debate was held, coincidentally, just hours after a U.S. Supreme Court decision paved the way for 11 more states to issue same sex marriage licenses. Same-sex marriage has been a polarizing issue in the Florida attorney general race, because Bondi has appealed judicial rulings that could overturn Florida's ban on same-sex marriage.
But Bondi took a softer tone Monday when she called the high court's rejection of appeals by five states seeking to preserve their same-sex marriage bans a "tremendous win" for the plaintiffs and promised to review the ruling.
She stopped well short of saying her office would give up its appeals, noting that challenges are still pending in 20 states.
Sheldon said he has already asked Bondi to drop her appeals since "39 federal and state courts" have ruled against the state bans. "And let me point out," he said, "government should get out of the business of telling people who they can love."
Wohlsifer said he's proud to belong to the party that has supported same-sex marriage "unequivocally" since 1972.
"So, finally, both establishment parties are coming over, our courts are coming over," he said. "No one said it better than a federal judge in Tallahassee - that liberty comes slower for some than for others."
The candidates restated their well-known positions on Florida's medical marijuana amendment, with Bondi saying the amendment is not written narrowly enough to prevent abuse, Sheldon citing anecdotal evidence to say he supports it and Wohlsifer saying it doesn't go far enough.
On Florida's controversial "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law, Sheldon said it should be changed, in part because it has been misapplied.
"At minimum, it should not be a part of the jury instructions," he said. "... Stand Your Ground was originally designed to expand the castle doctrine to cover your vehicle. Now it has been interpreted to (cover) any place you have a reasonable right to be. I think that fundamentally creates some problems. I would convene a group of lawyers and law enforcement people in the community to say how do we realistically deal with that."
Bondi said she's "a firm believer in the Second Amendment," referring to the right to bear arms, and doesn't understand what Sheldon means by convening a group to study it.
"I think that would be up to the Legislature to do that," she said. "But my office, we handle every criminal case appeal in the state of Florida. And if Stand Your Ground is asserted as a defense, and the jury doesn't buy it and they convict a person and the person goes to prison, I am going to defend the victim and the victim's family in that case."
Wohlsifer concurred with Bondi on "Stand Your Ground," saying people have "an affirmative right to protect themselves and their property" and "stand-your-ground protects them from criminal violations."
On whether Florida should expand gambling, Sheldon and Wohlsifer offered different levels of support. Bondi, noting that she's a fourth-generation Floridian, said she doesn't want any part of the state to become "another Las Vegas."
"Our our beautiful beaches, our Panhandle, Longboat Key, South Florida ... If they could keep it contained ... I don't believe they can, so absolutely not," she said.
The debate may have represented the best opportunity for Sheldon, a former administrator in the Obama administration and Deputy Attorney General under popular Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, to make up ground in the race.
Bondi has a large advantage in fundraising, and a Public Policy Polling poll last month showed her leading Sheldon 43 to 35 percent. Although Sheldon had challenged Bondi to five debates, Bondi had not agreed to any more.
Monday's debate will air again at 7 p.m. Saturday and 11:30 a.m. Sunday and will be available on Bright House Networks On-Demand Channel 999.