- June 1, 2012
If elected Florida's attorney general, Republican nominee Pam Bondi will be the first woman to hold that cabinet seat in state history.
Yet, that historical footnote, should it come to pass, is of little consequence to the 44-year old former Hillsborough County prosecutor who defeated Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp and former state Rep. Holly Benson in the August primary.
Though conscious of the history-making potential, the Tampa native and fourth-generation Floridian says, “I do not believe there's a glass ceiling — that was shattered by many great women who came before us.”
Bondi's bent on taking on gangs and student bullies, challenging Obamacare, protecting constitutional rights, supporting Arizona's immigration law, stopping mortgage fraud and identity theft, and creating jobs in her role as one of three cabinet members.
“It's an honor, but I'm running because I'm qualified,” says the 18-year veteran of the county's state attorney's office. Bondi served under Mark Ober, in the office of 130 attorneys, where she also was the official spokesperson for one of the largest such offices in the state for the past decade.
While an assistant state attorney, Bondi prosecuted murder and rape cases serving as felony bureau chief and a member of the internal homicide, vehicular homicide and DUI manslaughter committees. She also has administrative experience having sat on the office's executive committee dealing with budget, personnel and legal strategies.
Bondi is best known for a couple high profile murder cases and her appearances on Fox News as a part-time legal expert.
She put Adam Davis on death row for the murder of Vicky Robinson and successfully prosecuted Melvin Givens for first-degree murder in the stabbing death of local NBC-News Producer Danielle Cipriani.
Bondi says she's kept in close contact with victim's families, including Cipriani's mother, who contacted her not long ago. That's a testament to her advocacy for victims' rights.
“It's been really nice that many of my victims' family's have become active in my campaign,” says Bondi, also noting that a stalking victim recently reached out, and others have showed up at campaign functions to support her.
“I love helping people,” says Bondi. “That's why I love being a prosecutor so much.”
But Gelber's winning the battle for campaign contributions with more than $2.2 million to Bondi's less than $1.3 million. And as of Sept. 10 Gelber only has about $145,000 more to spend.
Bondi has the support of business groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Retail Federation. And Sarah Palin. Gelber's political committee support comes largely from public employee unions including state workers.
Other differences stand out, beginning with their physical traits. Gelber is six-foot-two, slightly balding male with medium length, dark hair beginning to turn gray, and wears glasses.
Bondi is a striking, petite female with long blonde hair drawing comparisons to actress Reese Witherspoon, the star of the box office hit film, “Legally Blonde.”
Gelber was a federal prosecutor for the South Florida U.S. Attorney's office, but has held other positions, while Bondi has been with the State Attorney's office since an internship while still in law school.
Bondi touts being a fourth-generation Floridian; Gelber is first-generation.
He's Jewish and Bondi is a devout Methodist.
Bondi, a Democrat until 2000, who shared the conservative values of the Republican Party, according to a spokesperson, switched parties to be able to vote in primaries.
An undergraduate criminal justice major at UF, Bondi joined the Delta Delta Delta sorority. She received her law degree from Stetson law school. Gelber went to UF's law school after receiving his bachelor of arts from Tufts University in Massachusetts.
Bondi says she's “a huge [Tampa Bay] Bucs fan,” and Gelber is a basketball nut who loves the Miami Heat, though he's no longer a season ticket holder.
She loves dogs and has rescued shelter dogs; is active in “The Spring of Tampa Bay,” one of the largest shelters for domestic violence, and is a sustaining member of the The Junior League of Tampa.
Bondi is divorced, and now engaged to Dr. Greg Henderson, a widower for nine years with four children. No wedding date has been set. Bondi says that will be a discussed after the election.
Gelber was involved in politics at an early age helping to run his father's mayoral campaign nearly 20 years ago.
In Bondi's eyes, Gelber's a career politician and she's a career prosecutor, who openly admits, “I never dreamed I would run for political office ever.” The last time she ran for anything was for fourth grade representative. She won using bubble gum to put up her campaign posters.
“She's not viewed as a politician,” observes Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa. “She's viewed as a skilled legal mind, a skilled prosecutor and an ethical professional.”
At one time in college, Bondi wasn't sure she wanted to be an attorney. “I wanted to be a pediatrician,” she says. Bondi participated in four jury trials during that internship while in her last semester at Stetson Law School.
“I knew I wanted to get a law degree, but I wasn't certain I wanted to practice law,” Bondi recalls, “but once I interned at the state attorney's office, that's when I knew I wanted to be a prosecutor.”
Bondi's worked under five state attorneys in the 13th Judicial Circuit, including current Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober. Bondi praises Ober, calling him “one of the most intelligent yet humble people you'll ever meet.”
Ober returns the compliment in a campaign message, saying, Bondi “has never shied away from anything, she's not afraid of anything.”
Other mentors in Bondi's career include now retired Judge Barbara Fleischer, who Bondi calls, “a role model.”
“I was in her division for over four years as a prosecutor,” says Bondi. “She instilled my work ethic. She was tough and demanding, but she was fair.”
Another who has had a big influence on Bondi is at the other end of the age continuum — her six-year-old niece who has Down Syndrome.
Calling it “one of the most difficult days of my life,” Bondi recalls the day when she found out about her sister's daughter having the mental and physical development disability tied to having an extra chromosome.
“We had a jury come back and unanimously recommend the death sentence for a defendant, Bondi recounts. We just received the verdict and I got the call that my niece had Down Syndrome. It was initially devastating.”
Bondi's first thoughts were of her sister and brother-in-law raising a special needs child. Now, Bondi says about her niece, “She has changed my perception of beauty and kindness. She does not have a mean bone in her body.”
“Down Syndrome children are truly a gift from God and a miracle,” says Bondi. “We wouldn't change one thing about her.”
The one thing Bondi does hope to change, of course, is her job, having resigned from her post at the state attorney's office last December to run for attorney general.
And despite her running second to Gelber in fundraising so far, she may hold the ultimate trump card: nearly 380,000 more Republicans voted in the attorney general primary than Democrats did in theirs.
“I don't see this office as a stepping stone. I don't want to be governor; I don't want to be a congressman or a senator,” Bondi makes clear. “I only want to be the best attorney general I can be. You can only accomplish a lot in office if you're not looking at the next.”