AG candidates Aronberg and Gelber clash on vouchers, bash Republicansby George Bennett | October 11th, 2009
LAKE BUENA VISTA — Democratic attorney general candidates Dave Aronberg and Dan Gelber traded a few elbows over school vouchers and campaign finance this morning but spent most of their time bashing Republicans during a debate before about 1,000 Democratic activists.
The first debate between the primary rivals saw Miami Beach state Sen. Gelber repeatedly stressing his eight-year record as a federal prosecutor while Greenacres Sen. Aronberg, 38, frequently invoked popular former Democratic Attorney General Bob Butterworth, for whom Aronberg worked in two stints between 1999 and 2002.
The debate’s most heated exchange came when Gelber accused Aronberg of supporting private school vouchers.
Aronberg voted this year for a bill to continue an existing program of tax credits to businesses that contribute to programs providing vouchers to low-income students. The bill did not enlarge the $118 million scholarship program, but did expand eligibility for the tax credits to insurance companies.
The bill passed 26-11, with Gelber and eight other Senate Democrats opposed. Aronberg and three other Democrats voted in favor.
Aronberg, who said afterward that the bill neither created nor expanded vouchers, accused Gelber of a cheap shot during the debate.
“I’m used to running in tough races,” Aronberg told the crowd. “Republicans have spent a million and a half dollars against me distorting my record. But I’ve never had a Democrat distort my record. I have always been pro-public education. I have never voted for a voucher. I have never voted to increase the voucher system.”
Gelber also drew a veiled distinction between himself and Aronberg on campaign finance issues.
Aronberg is one of many elected officials who controls political committees that can accept contributions beyond the $500 limit imposed on donations to individual candidates.
Aronberg committees have raised more than $2 million since 2002. A Gelber committee raised $38,450, but he said he has shut it down.
“We have a campaign finance system in this state that massively allows public officials to take large amounts of money from special interests. That is wrong,” Gelber said.
Aronberg said he agrees with Gelber on the need to reform campaign finance laws.
“I believe in disarmament — just not unilateral disarmament,” Aronberg said. “I think the Republicans want us to do away with our groups so they can continue swiftboating us and attacking us at every turn. No way. It needs to be disarmament across the board.”
Both candidates served plenty of red meat to the partisans at the Florida Democratic Party’s 2009 state conference.
“The Republicans have had control of state government for a decade,” Gelber said. “These guys have been in control and they have driven this state into a ditch. Like any responsible parent, it’s our time to stand up and say ‘Your driving privileges have been suspended. Hand over the keys.’ “
Aronberg accused the last two Republican attorneys general — Charlie Crist, who’s now governor, and incumbent Bill McCollum, who’s leaving after one term to run for governor in 2010 — of making the office “a revolving door for professional politicians.”
“I will be the first attorney general in the last eight years who actually wants to be attorney general,” Aronberg said. “You’ve seen people who are more interested in press conferences than in public safety.”