TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As Florida Democrats go to the polls, their two attorney-general candidates continue traveling the state attempting to draw attention to a Cabinet contest that has been highlighted by an ongoing lawsuit over one candidate’s ballot qualifications.
An undercard to the high-profile race for governor --- and more subdued than the divisive Republican primary for attorney general --- the Democratic race pits state Rep. Sean Shaw of Tampa and Ryan Torrens, a consumer-protection attorney also from Hillsborough County.
Shaw and Torrens have taken different approaches to the campaign, while sharing stances on issues ranging from opioid manufacturers to their opposition to the state’s “stand your ground” self-defense law.
The Democrats have appeared at few events together on stage, despite efforts by Torrens to debate and gain more attention.
One place they are expected to square off, however, is the Leon County Courthouse on Aug. 22, as Shaw has filed a lawsuit that alleges Torrens should be decertified from the ballot because of improperly listing an “illegal” contribution as a loan to be able to afford the candidate qualifying fee.
Torrens disputes Shaw’s characterization and said people are tired of such “frivolous lawsuits.”
Shaw equated the lawsuit with his goal, if elected, to be one of the “most active attorney generals in this country.”
“If I don’t hold my primary opponent accountable, what does it mean when I’m telling people that I’m going to hold the Legislature accountable?” Shaw said. “When I’m going to go after anyone doing wrong in the state, that what it looks like. This is what proactive attorney general action’s look like.”
The winner of the Aug. 28 primary will move on to the November general election and face the winner of the Republican primary between former Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Ashley Moody and Rep. Frank White of Pensacola. Also, Jeff Siskind, an attorney from Wellington is running without a party affiliation.
The better politically connected and funded Democrat in the race, Shaw, 40, is a trial lawyer and the son of late Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw Jr. Sean Shaw served as the state insurance consumer advocate under former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and in 2016 was elected to the House.
Torrens, 33, is a fifth-generation Floridian who operates his own firm, which specializes in foreclosure defense. He’s served as a congressional intern and has been open about battling alcohol addiction, saying someone running for office needs to be honest with the voters.
Both say they would actively use the post of attorney general for all Floridians, which they contend current Attorney General Pam Bondi has failed to do. Bondi cannot run again in November because of term limits.
“People are upset, and they want someone to fight for them, and you have to tell the people what you’re fighting for and who’s best equipped to fight for them,” Shaw said.
Torrens said Shaw’s lawsuit trying to bump him from the ballot may actually help him.
“We know how Republicans are going (to run) this race, and we need someone who is going to be a fighter,” Torrens said. “You need the one who will actually stand up and fight.”
Aubrey Jewett, a political-science professor at the University of Central Florida, said Shaw is the apparent favorite, due his time in the state House and his father’s notoriety. The elder Shaw, who died in 2015, was the first black chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.
The Republican Attorneys General Association is already targeting Sean Shaw, issuing a release that alleged he “would dramatically transform the office into the most partisan, extreme, anti-job, attorney general Florida has ever-seen.”
The association also contended Shaw “has a clear disdain for the rule of law; he openly admits he would use the authority of the Office of the Attorney General to suit his personal political priorities.”
Shaw disagrees with the part about a disdain for the law. But he sees himself using the “bully pulpit” of the statewide position.
“You are doggone right that I’m going to go after people who are doing wrong, and I’m going to make sure that everyone is held accountable under the law,” Shaw said. “If the Republican Attorneys General Association has a problem with that, then they’re going to have a problem with me.”
But with no formal debates, few polls and little advertising, Jewett said there remains a challenge for voters to learn much about either candidate before casting ballots.
“That race, compared to the Republican race where both Moody and White have raised money and actually run ads … compared to the Republican side, which has seen a lot of activity and ads, I haven’t really seen anything on the Democratic front,” Jewett said.
Shaw and Torrens back Florida joining a coalition of states suing the Trump administration about the separation of undocumented immigrant families and support a proposed constitutional amendment that, if approved by voters in November, would automatically restore voting rights to most felons who have served their sentences.
Meanwhile, both support Bondi’s defense of a new state law that imposed new gun restrictions after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The National Rifle Association challenged part of the law that increased the minimum age to purchase rifles and other long guns from 18 to 21.
Shaw said if elected his first action would be to establish a task force on gun violence and pointed to incidents such as the Parkland shooting, the massacre at the Pulse night club in Orlando and a highly publicized shooting of a black man in the parking lot of a Clearwater convenience store.
“Eradicating the type of violence that resulted in the lives of Floridians being cut too short at places such as the Pulse night club, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the Clearwater convenience store … is going to take a team effort,” Shaw said.
He acknowledged that with a Republican-dominated Legislature, there is little he can do other than work with law enforcement and use the attorney general’s position to try to push lawmakers.
The debate about the “stand your ground” self-defense law has been refueled in recent weeks by the fatal shooting of Markeis McGlockton at a Clearwater convenience store. The shooter, who is white, claimed self-defense under the “stand your ground” law and was not initially arrested, though he was charged this week with manslaughter.
Torrens has said he wouldn’t defend what he describes as an “outrageous law.”