Pam Bondi's political desires were minimal three years ago. But now she's ready for a national stage.
Who. Pam Bondi
What. Florida attorney general, the state's top law enforcer
Key. “You have to stay one step ahead of the bad guys.”
Don't let the blonde hair, button nose and good looks deceive you. Pam Bondi is a dynamo, and you don't want to be in her way with nefarious intents.
She built her reputation in Tampa as a tough and successful prosecutor. Now she is expanding that reputation as Florida attorney general and will be on the national stage in the court battle to stop the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known as ObamaCare.
She just never wanted any of it. Really.
Bondi, 46, was happy sending bad guys to the brig in Hillsborough County. More than happy. She loved it.
“I was prosecuting for almost 20 years and loved almost every second of it,” she says with sincerity that makes you believe her.
She told her Tampa prosecuting staff that “when you stop feeling the passion, you've got to get out. I never stopped.”
And so the night before she made her announcement to run for attorney general, she was still wavering.
“Running for office was such an incredibly difficult decision for me. I kept postponing my announcement,” she says with a heavy sigh. “I didn't want to leave my job. I had no political aspirations whatsoever ... I always said if I won the lottery, I'd keep prosecuting.”
Even her parents, siblings and boyfriend -- now fiance — were not sure the announcement would be that she would run.
But once in, she was all in, and the rest was in all the news: defeating better known Republicans in the primary — including the sitting lieutenant governor — and then beating a well-known Democrat in the general election.
“There were 50 reasons not to, and none to,” says the fourth-generation Floridian over her decision to run.
What tipped her in favor?
“Prayed a lot. Prayed a lot. Prayed a lot,” she says with slight pauses each time, as though willing you to believe it. And she quickly expands on it. She never prayed to win, she says, but that God's will would be done.
The story of how Bondi decided to run for Florida attorney general tells a lot about who she is, and why she might be just the right person to be the lead attorney general in the ObamaCare lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court in March.
Novice but briefly
In a way, Bondi is in the mold of Gov. Rick Scott in that she is a political novice, bringing a non-political, outsider attitude to hyper-political, insider-driven Tallahassee.
It left her a bit unprepared at first. She was most surprised at “how difficult it is to pass very good legislation in the state of Florida. You would think it would be much easier.” Why is it so hard? “Special interests,” she says. “Maybe it was a bit naÃ¯ve on my part, but I'm not naÃ¯ve anymore.”
Another problem in getting the right things done? Tallahassee is “extremely partisan. I'd like to change that.” OK, so maybe she is still a little naÃ¯ve.
But there is no doubt she has climbed the steep learning curve, and made an impact almost before getting settled into her new office that is next to the governor's on the first floor of the Capitol building.
In her first month on the job, she got a call from Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen regarding “bath salts,” the euphemism for a drug that mimicked heroine and cocaine and was being sold legally. She sent agents into a Tallahassee mall and they were able to buy the drug — Methylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MDPV — which went under such soothingly deceptive names as Vanilla Sky, Ivory Wave and Ocean Burst.
The psychoactive drug made people see monsters and think they could fly. It was multiplying rapidly in Panhandle “head shops” and spring break was arriving before the Legislature could act.
Bondi has a nurturing side -- such as getting a St. Bernard from an animal shelter and nursing him back to health. And she has a pit bull side, such as going after bad guys, particularly those aiming at children.
This brought out the pit bull.
Bondi took the extraordinary step of temporarily banning bath salts through an emergency order. It instantly became a felony to possess them.
State agents swept through shops throughout the state and confiscated thousands of packets. The Legislature subsequently made the ban permanent.
“We stopped it. It was all over Tallahassee and all over the Panhandle,” she says. “This poison was being sold to our kids legally.”
On the heels of bath salts came the “pill mills” legislative battle.
Pill mills exploded in South Florida where medical clinics were dispensing painkillers and other addictive medicines to addicts and dealers. They quickly spread to the rest of the state, and by 2009 the Florida Department of Law Enforcement reported that nine people a day were dying of prescription drug overdoses. Ohio, Kentucky and other states were complaining that Florida's lax laws were spreading the problem nationwide.
It jumped to one of Bondi's top priorities. But lawmakers had been stymied for several years and special interests kept fighting it at every step.
It was a quick lesson in the ugly underside of Tallahassee politics. But after only a few months in office, she worked the Legislature like a seasoned veteran, staying in the House until midnight on the last day of the session to help ensure that it passed.
“I've been more than impressed with Pam Bondi's willingness to take on tough issues. She went in and led on the pill mills,” says Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
As difficult and sometimes distasteful as the politics are, there is much more for Bondi.
“It's so easy to pass legislation, to hold a press conference and move on to some other issue. But you are not going to solve the problem,” she says. So she beefed up enforcement of the new law, set up a strike force and pushed educational efforts.
The result has been obvious nationally. The pill mills have been shut down in Florida, and are now scurrying to other states that are following Florida's lead.
A Feb. 20 USA Today editorial stamped her efforts: “Florida, once the epicenter of this trade, barred doctors from dispensing the drugs directly last year and saw the volume of prescriptions plummet. Other states should follow suit.”
An aide brought the editorial to Bondi during a recent interview in her office. Her face lit up. “See, others are saying it,” she says with no small amount of excitement.
“She has led in a way that inspires,” says Tom Feeney, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida and the inverse of Bondi as a long-time legislator, House Speaker and three-term member of Congress.
Scott is similarly high on Bondi. “Whether you consider her stand against Florida's prescription drug abuse epidemic, or her leadership on Florida's lawsuit challenging ObamaCare, you couldn't ask for a better,” attorney general, he says.
Feeney goes even further: “She's a national model for what an attorney general can do.”
That actually gives pause to Wilson.
“My counterparts nationally are talking about Pam Bondi,” he says. “What I worry is that if a Republican is in the White House, they are going to try to recruit her to be the next U.S. attorney general.”
Childhood and faith
One of Bondi's big challenges as attorney general might surprise: being away from family. She is a softy for kids, family and faith. In fact, she only has an apartment in Tallahassee, and goes home to Tampa every weekend. Every weekend.
“I'm extremely close to my family,” she says. That includes her 175-pound St. Bernard, Luke, named after the Book of Luke in the Bible, whom she carts back and forth with her between Tallahassee and Tampa on weekends.
“The hardest part, personally, is missing my family. Being up here by myself is very difficult,” she says.
Bondi, who is twice-divorced, is close with her parents, sister and brother-in-law, niece and nephews, fiance Dr. Greg Henderson and his children.
“Every weekend. It's my sanity,” she says.
To those who know Tallahassee well, that is an understandable sentiment for someone who is not a political junkie. She doesn't like the political game, the constant power plays and the partisanship.
Bondi was a registered Democrat until 2000. But she was not particularly political. She says she was a Democrat because everything in Tampa was run by Democrats and most races were decided in the primaries. But she only voted a few times — something she now regrets — preferring to concentrate on schooling and then prosecuting.
She switched party affiliation because her conservatism was just more in line with the Republican Party.
In some ways, she is as much a woman of faith as of politics. In addition to prayer being a deciding factor in her decision to run, she is a regular at the Wednesday morning legislative prayer group in the Capitol.
“I wish more people attended,” she says. “It is a bi-partisan group and one of the best things in Tallahassee in my opinion.”
Her fiance, a Tampa ophthalmologist and widower for nine years, is a founding member of Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Tampa. He has four grown children and they are involved in the May wedding planning for the couple.
Further, she wants to become a foster parent. She's seen enough damage to children in this world and is ready to help a few on a personal level.
She's taken the foster parenting classes. Twice.
Pam Bondi is never off the clock. She keeps a pad on the night stand and writes notes as she thinks of them in bed — which apparently is frequently.
“I don't sleep a lot,” she chuckles.
Even as her staff tried half a dozen times to respectfully get her to the next appointment, she followed a visitor all the way out to the reception desk, explaining in more detail about the tragedy of the oxycodone-addicted babies.
The bath salts fight was just the first in what is shaping up to be a yearly battle. New synthetic drugs manufactured in Asia keep popping up. K2. Spice. Jazz.
And Bondi is determined to stay on top of each one. “Calls to poison control plummeted after we outlawed this synthetic substance,” she says of the K2.
But there are always more emergencies.
She got a call from a neo-natal intensive care nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa telling her that 20% of the babies born into the unit were addicted to oxycodone. She began investigating and found that 30% of those at All Children's Hospital's neo-natal intensive care were addicted. It was an epidemic.
“So I went and saw the babies,” she says. Bondi may be a fourth-generation Floridian, but she speaks in the quick cadence of a northerner. “Once you see them...the babies' cries are like nothing you've every heard. The cries are shrieking cries. Instead of milk they're getting morphine or methadone.”
The moms will admit they did alcohol and cocaine or other drugs, but never even think about a prescription drug they received from a doctor.
“Many of the moms are shocked their babies are born in that condition,” she says, leaning forward to emphasize the point. “Some had given up alcohol.”
Well, she was on the case.
She flew to Washington, D.C., to meet with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, telling him: “We want Florida to be the prototype state.”
She is there for businesses, also. The chamber's Wilson says if local chambers have a problem with an issue, she jumps on it.
“If she thinks its worth doing, she'll make a phone call right there in front of you,” he says. “She doesn't wait for someone else to do it.”
Bondi talks more passionately about pill mills, time-share re-sale fraud and babies born hooked on oxycodone than on the ObamaCare lawsuit that is national news. In fact, she volunteers to talk about the state issues and must be prodded about ObamaCare.
But once asked, the same level of understated intensity rises.
ObamaCare is controversial in nearly every aspect. But the area that has triggered a constitutional fight is the portion that eliminates choice by mandating that every American must purchase health insurance.
The idea was to require everyone to be in the pool to spread the costs. President Obama and the Democrats invoked the commerce clause to support the mandate.
Conservatives and many constitutionalists think the mandate is unconstitutional, and philosophically worry about the precedent of requiring Americans to buy a product simply by being alive.
So 26 state attorney generals filed a legal challenge to the mandate portion of ObamaCare — the central element of the health care reform.
Bondi recommended the states hire Paul Clement, former U.S. solicitor general and currently a professor at Georgetown University. He has argued 53 cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
“He is, in my opinion, the premier Supreme Court practitioner in the country,” Bondi says. After interviewing Clement and several others, the 26 states voted unanimously to hire him. The Supreme Court, normally allowing one hour for oral arguments, is providing five-and-a-half hours over three days — March 26-28.
“People were saying this is a frivolous lawsuit. Now, I don't think anybody in the country is going to dispute that this is of great national importance,” she says. She is writing briefs and rebuttals in the case.
In the primary election, her opponents tried to paint her as a moderate -- twice divorced, Democrat until 2000 — but she hardly comes across that way now.
“This is truly one of the biggest cases in our lifetime. It affects more than health care. If the federal government can force us to purchase a product simply by being alive, they can force us to do anything,” she says. “They're trying to do this under the commerce clause and this isn't about commerce. It is our rights as citizens of this country and they're being trampled on by the federal government.”
Impassioned statements like that put her on the national political radar. But Bondi is adamant that she is not after higher office. She is content at attorney general and says she will run for re-election because she promised she would.
“You come into this office and the biggest fear was that you would be a political figure head and you couldn't make a difference on a large scale. But you can.”
She may have just begun.
THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT PAM BONDI
• She is friends with Sarah Palin, who endorsed her candidacy. “She's an amazing woman and I'm blessed to have her friendship and her support.”
• She travels back to Tampa every weekend with her 175-pound St. Bernard, Luke.
• She was a registered Democrat until 2000.
• She was a primary pusher of the Republican debate in Tampa and one of the moderators.
• She is good friends with former presidential candidate and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. She spoke to him a few days before a recent interview when he was in Israel.
• She flies coach.
• She wants to be a foster mom and has taken the classes to do it.
This story has been updated to correct Pam Bondi's age. It also clarifies that her dog, Luke, was not rescued after Hurricane Katrina. That was her previous dog, Noah, who was eventually returned to his owners.