By Jim Turner
The News Service of Florida
LAKE BUENA VISTA — Expect the animosity to grow in Florida’s four-way Republican primary for attorney general.
Rancor between candidates was on full display Saturday during a forum held by The Federalist Society, one of nation’s most influential organizations involving conservative and libertarian legal minds, at Disney’s Yacht and Beach Club Resort.
Ashley Moody, a former Hillsborough County judge who has been endorsed by term-limited Attorney General Pam Bondi, called out Rep. Jay Fant, R-Jacksonville, for political-committee mailers painting her a “liberal,” which she called “misleading,” “unjustified” and “unworthy of the office.”
Fant — one of four members of the Florida House running for the state Cabinet office — replied to Moody that “issues matter, and just because the issues make you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean you’re being attacked.”
“These campaigns get difficult, they won’t get easier from here when the grassroots gets out there,” he said, adding she supported Democrat Bill McBride over Republican Jeb Bush in the 2002 gubernatorial election, and her family was involved in a 2009 lawsuit against President Donald Trump.
The Moodys were among 54 plaintiffs who claimed “negligent misrepresentations” by Trump and the Trump Organization about investments in a proposed development along the Hillsborough River that never got built. The case was settled with a confidential agreement.
Fant also said mailers Moody called “attacks” didn’t come from his campaign or political committee. However, Fant’s campaign has repeatedly referred to Moody as being a “Clinton liberal” and even called for her to be prohibited from attending a recent Republican Party of Florida event. She wasn’t excluded from the event.
Meanwhile, Rep. Ross Spano, a Dover Republican, showed Saturday he’s going to make courtroom experience a way to distinguish himself from two of the four Republicans running for the office: Fant and Rep. Frank White, R-Pensacola.
Span, in a question to Fant, noted that he’s litigated “well over 500 cases.”
Fant and White both pointed to their executive leadership positions.
“This is the attorney general position, not the solicitor position,” replied Fant, an attorney who works for his family-owned financial-service companies. Fant added that the statewide office requires executive and policy experience.
White, when asked by Moody if he’s ever served as a lead counsel who’s brought a case to verdict, replied there are “many paths to be an effective attorney general.”
White, an attorney who serves as general counsel and chief financial officer for the chain of Sandy Sansing auto dealerships, pointed out that Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, previously served as attorney general in Oklahoma.
Pruitt, who was a speaker before The Federalist Society on Friday night, included in his pre-election background the state Legislature and co-ownership of a minor league baseball team.
Pruitt “took that skill set and zealously advocated for the rights of Oklahomans and also set standards and, along with General Bondi, to lead nationally in fighting the Obama administration,” White said.
White, whose political committee United Conservatives has sent a mailer calling Moody a “liberal judge” for having once registered as a Democrat, questioned her stance on Second Amendment rights involving private property, including college campuses.
Moody, who abandoned her Democratic affiliation by 1999 when she was appointed a student representative on the Florida university system Board of Regents, replied that “people have a natural right to defend themselves,” while not directly addressing private property.
The Republicans will battle in an Aug. 28 primary, with the winner moving on to the Nov. 6 general election. Two Democrats — state Rep. Sean Shaw of Tampa and Hillsborough County attorney Ryan Torrens — are running.
The exchanges between White and Moody weren’t as sharp as her banter with Fant.
Such exchanges were able to occur due to the event format.
The Federalist Society initially gave each of the four GOP candidates and Torrens a chance to introduce themselves and explain differences on issues. Shaw did not attend.
Initial topics included the Second Amendment, future U.S. Supreme Court selections, the use of outside counsel in the attorney general’s office and how they’d respond to issues such as tort reform and marijuana enforcement.
Other than Torrens, there were few noticeable differences in individual stances.
Before concluding the event, the panelists were given a pair of rounds in which they each got to directly ask another panelist a question. For each round, no panelist could be the recipient of more than one question.
Fant, blocked in the first round from going after Moody, asked Torrens how he and Moody were similar.
Torrens declined to take the bait.
“I know there is debate and discussion in this Republican primary about who the real conservative is, but I’m here running on the Democratic slate with my own proposals,” Torrens replied.
Torrens had earlier drawn laughs from the crowd when ask who he’d recommend to the U.S. Supreme Court if asked by Trump.
“I know you’re going to love this,” Torres opened, before declaring he’d suggest former President Barack Obama.