State Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach has the well-earned reputation of being a bulldog debater — not surprising for a former federal prosecutor in Miami who at 25 began working in the public corruption and civil rights units of the U.S. Attorney's office.
Gelber prosecuted cases for eight years involving the beating death of a drug dealer, a violent drug gang (the “Untouchables”), counterfeiters and an arson ring.
Now 49, the University of Florida law school graduate carries that aggressive nature from the federal courts to the basketball court. The six-foot two-inch, self-described “gym rat,” feels equally at home shooting jumpers over fellow legislators in annual games in Tallahassee, as taking his shots at Republican opponents on the campaign trail.
And he's not shy about doing so in his campaign to defeat Republican opponent Pam Bondi, a former Hillsborough County assistant state attorney.
“If you don't like the health care plan, run for Congress and change it,” he says about Bondi's position on an issue that's become a focus of the contest. She supports Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum and the other 20 state attorneys general bringing the case to overturn Obamacare.
That issue is being litigated in a Pensacola federal court this month to overturn federal health care mandates. Gelber calls it “a political lawsuit with little chance for success,” and doesn't want to see the office's resources committed to it though Bondi says federal healthcare mandates could cost the state $1 billion a year.
Coming from a Jewish family filled with prosecutors, Gelber learned much about the legal profession early on from his father Seymour, also a prosecutor and politician. Seymour Gelber served as chief assistant state attorney in Dade County before becoming an assistant attorney general for Florida from 1966-70.
During that time, the Gelber family lived in Tallahassee beginning when the younger Gelber was six.
Still active at 91, the elder Gelber is an Army Air Corp veteran who today sits on the Miami-Dade County ethics commission. He was appointed a circuit judge after the family returned to Miami from Tallahassee.
Sen. Gelber's wife, Joan Silverstein, is also a federal prosecutor. His brother-in-law, John Barker, is a prosecutor for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the largest investigative agency of the Department of Homeland Security.
Gelber took time to manage his father's successful Miami Beach mayoral campaign, a nonpartisan race in the early 1990s. “Mom and I ran his campaign,” he says. His mother, Edith, was a schoolteacher from a family of teachers. She also taught at Florida A&M when they lived in Tallahassee.
Her profession, also that of Gelber's sister, likely influenced his opposition to failed Senate Bill 6, the 2010 regular session bill calling for teacher pay to be partly based on student achievement. “I grew up with my dad talking about public safety and my mom talking about public education. You see both sides of the continuum,” he says.
Sen. Gelber recalls his father's mayoral opponent being a state senator who outspent them, but, he says, “The citizens really wanted a reform-minded mayor.” His father “ ... followed a fellow who had been indicted. And I was a corruption prosecutor, ironically,” laughs the Senator.
Candidate Gelber credits his father with restoring Miami Beach, which the Senator describes as having “fallen into disrepair.”
While in his 70s, Mayor Gelber led the city for six years and in 1996 was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, a post held by the younger Gelber in 2008.
That year, the mayor's son was elected to the Florida Senate. He served in the House from 2000-2008, becoming Democratic Leader from 2006-2008.
The younger Gelber has broken from some of his father's less liberal positions. The Senator says about his father, “He thought Miami Beach emerged, not because of government, but in spite of it. He got rid of government intrusion into the city.”
Sen. Gelber, however, is known more for expanding government and has the usual public employee unions' support provided to Democratic candidates. Campaign contributors include Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Florida Healthcare Union, SEIU of Florida, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and various teachers' associations.
But the elder Gelber severely limited the influence of lobbyists as mayor, something that's a bit of a hot button for candidate Gelber today. He says that as a cabinet member sitting on the State Board of Administration overseeing the state pension fund he wants to be sure the “ ... lobbying corp does not infiltrate the process. I'm going to jealously guard it,” he adds.
The elder Gelber prevented lobbyists from contributing to campaigns, says the Senator. The mayor wouldn't accept more than a $100 campaign contribution from anyone. As mayor, he also implemented term limits and retroactively applied them to himself.
Sen. Gelber's parents weren't his only early influences.
U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn — who Gelber describes as “a terrific public servant” — in 1994 appointed Gelber his chief counsel to work on terrorism and domestic security issues. That assignment to Washington, D.C. took him all over the world, serving as staff director of the U.S. Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
“The first job I had, he told me he wanted me to go to Tokyo,” recalls Gelber. There, he investigated the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed 13 people “to learn what to do to stop it.” He also went on assignments to Russia, Ukraine and Germany.
Gelber considers Nunn a role model for him, and says, “Nunn really understood that the most important thing you do might not come to fruition in government.”
He describes Nunn as “a nonpartisan U.S. Senator” and someone who “thought about government generationally.” Gelber, who considers Nunn an authority on public security, adds, “I believe that when you talk about national security, those debates need to be nonpartisan. It endangers people when you turn over national security to partisans.”
It was in D.C. that Gelber met his wife, who also happened to be from Miami. They married in 1997.
Gelber and his wife have three children — ages 6, 10 and 12 — for whom he says, “I care deeply. A lot of what I see, I see through them.”
They are all in public schools, he points out, calling himself, “an acute observer of public education.” In the next breath he's quick to criticize what he terms, “the overemphasis on FCAT.”
Another big influence on Gelber was Chesterfield Smith, the founder of the Holland and Knight law firm, who Gelber describes as “the most prominent Florida lawyer in the last half of the 20th century.”
“He took an interest in my career,” says Gelber about his mentor. “He urged me not to be afraid to do public service work.”
Gelber has also been actively involved in the Miami area serving on the community's United Way board of trustees since 1997 and volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami back to 1985. His little brother, Travis Thomas, stood by Gelber at his wedding, and later Gelber was Travis' best man at his recent nuptials.
But that softer side of the Senator is balanced by his naturally aggressive nature enhanced by his profession as a tough prosecutor and his reputation as a competitive athlete.
“Gelber's always been one of those on the opposing side we've had to be careful with because of his [legislative] skills and athletic ability,” says state Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa. Crist has seen Gelber in action on the Senate floor and on the basketball court and softball fields.
Though not supporters, both Crist and Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, describe Gelber as “very, very smart.” Bennett sees Gelber as someone who will go after Medicaid fraud, but will weigh-in on almost anything. “He's very good in debate,” says Bennett, “but he's one of those who appears he wants to talk about every single issue.”
That helps to explain why Gelber wants seven debates with Bondi, though they've settled on two coming up in October.
Crist sums up Gelber this way: “He really thinks things out, draws his own conclusion, and argues profusely to win his way.”
If Gelber doesn't win this race, however, he says it's not the end of the world though he's given up the last two years of his Senate term to run for attorney general. “I'm a lawyer. I'll go back to taking care of my family,” he says. “I don't need to run to feel satisfied in life.”