With Attorney General Pam Bondi barred from running for another term, former Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Ashley Moody and state Rep. Frank White are locked in an expensive and personally contentious Republican primary fight as they seek to replace her.
White, a freshman legislator who is an executive at chain of family-owned auto dealerships, has used his personal wealth to fire shots at Moody. Among other things, the Pensacola lawmaker has charged that Moody isn’t a fully committed Republican, as she once registered as a Democrat and her family sued President Donald Trump nearly a decade ago for fraud.
Moody, a former prosecutor who stepped down as a judge in April 2017 after just over a decade in the position, has described White as a “car salesman turned politician” with no prosecutorial experience.
Moody professes support for Trump and has received backing from much of the party establishment in the Aug. 28 primary, with Bondi being one of her early supporters.
But Aubrey Jewett, a political-science professor at the University of Central Florida, said White’s ability to self-fund —- $2.77 million of White’s own money has gone into the race, plus at least $438,000 more tied to the Sansing auto dealership and family—- has allowed the liberal depictions of Moody to reach ears statewide.
“I originally thought Moody sounded like she may be able to take this thing,” Jewett said. “But being the regular establishment favorite doesn’t mean much anymore. It all seems to be where you stand with Donald Trump (more) than anything else. And clearly, White, from his ads, is trying to depict Moody as not Trump enough.”
White repeatedly points out that Moody initially registered to vote, while a teenager, as a Democrat, and donated to the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial campaign of Bill McBride.
White mailers have claimed Moody “fought for lighter sentences” against pedophiles and child pornographers as a prosecutor and judge. Meanwhile, a White campaign video ad states that Moody “was a lifelong Democrat” and that she “personally” sued Trump.
Moody said she changed registration to Republican while in law school, and the $100 contribution to McBride was made after she joined his law firm. As for the Trump lawsuit, her family was among a number of plaintiffs that settled in 2011 after claims of “negligent misrepresentations” by Trump and the Trump Organization over the scuttled plans for the 52-story Trump Tower Tampa condominiums along the Hillsborough River.
The winner of the GOP primary will move on to the Nov. 6 general election and face either state Rep. Sean Shaw of Tampa or consumer attorney Ryan Torrens, who are battling in the Democratic primary. Jeff Siskind, an attorney from Wellington also is running without a party affiliation.
White, 39, is a native of Amarillo, Texas, who received his bachelor’s and law degrees from Southern Methodist University, where he was student body president in 1999-2000, and the student representative to the Board of Trustees.
He initially practiced as an attorney at the firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld before moving to Florida in 2010. He became the chief financial officer and general counsel for the Sansing chain of auto dealerships in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi owned by his wife’s family. A local leader of the Federalist Society, he won election to the state House in 2016. White and his wife, Stephanie, have three sons.
Moody, 43, is from a family with a lengthy history in the legal profession. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting and a law degree from the University of Florida and later a master’s of law in international law at the Stetson University College of Law, she practiced commercial litigation at Holland & Knight.
She later joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office as a federal prosecutor. Her husband, Justin, is a federal law-enforcement agent. The Moodys have two sons. In 2006, she was elected to the circuit court in Hillsborough County.
With more than $6 million spent by the campaigns and related political committees, the mounting acrimony has elevated what was already one of the biggest races in the primaries.
Moody said she has the background to run the attorney general’s office, which is why she’s drawn the support of Bondi and nearly every top elected law-enforcement official in the state.
“I think voters are looking for a leader, someone that shares their same political and philosophical views,” Moody said. “I’m a conservative, but I’m also someone who has experience prosecuting cases. … There is no question who those in law enforcement support.”
White points to his conservative “track record” as what differentiates him from Moody.
“Voters want a principled conservative that can be trusted to support the president,” White said. “I have a clear voting track record that can be examined. I believe the office is best served by a conservative, and constitutional rule of law is a matter that until my dying breath, as long as the voters trust me, is something I’m going to stand up to fight for.”
Both would follow Bondi by refusing to join a coalition of states suing the Trump administration over the separation of undocumented immigrant families. They also support her decision to take five of the nation’s largest opioid manufacturers and four distributors to court.
White and Moody both oppose a measure on the November ballot known as Amendment 4, which, if approved, would automatically restore voting rights to felons who have served their sentences.
Also, they disagree with Bondi over the state’s arguments that a 19-year-old Alachua County woman should not be able to remain anonymous in a National Rifle Association challenge to a new state gun restriction.
The NRA challenged part of a broad school-safety law passed after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County. The disputed part of the law raises from 18 to 21 the minimum age to buy rifles and other long guns in Florida.
The Alachua County teen has sought to join the lawsuit and remain anonymous. White voted against the law, questioning the new gun restrictions.
“I firmly believe it went too far in infringing on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens,” White said.
Moody also said she wouldn’t have backed the measure due to the provision related to the age of gun buyers.
“There are, however, parts of the act that I agree with. I support the hardening of our schools, expanding law enforcement's presence and role on campus, and providing more mental health screening and treatment to students,” Moody said.