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National Politics

Health care ruling could boost Bondi's standing

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 07:10 PM
TAMPA -

Pundits speculate whether President Barack Obama or challenger Mitt Romney will benefit from the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Obama's Affordable Care Act, expected today.

But one thing's for sure: If the court kills all or part of the law, it will raise the national profile of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi of Tampa.

The lawsuit was started, and most of the legal heavy lifting done, under Bondi's predecessor — former Attorney General Bill McCollum. McCollum filed the action electronically within minutes after Obama signed the law in March 2010.

Bondi took over the litigation after taking office in January 2011 and has shepherded it to conclusion as attorney general for Florida, the lead plaintiff among the 26 states suing.

Her work included hiring the lead lawyer, Paul Clement of Washington, and signing on the last half-dozen plaintiff states.

As a media-savvy spokeswoman for her side, Bondi already has attracted nationwide notice. She hasn't avoided that spotlight.

Bondi went to Washington for oral arguments on the lawsuit in March, and her comments about the litigation were a fixture on national television news reports. She'll be back in that spotlight if the litigation succeeds.

More importantly, with the Republican National Convention coming to Bondi's hometown starting Aug. 27, and Obamacare one of the GOP's biggest election-year targets, she could personify a major party victory.

"It's likely to elevate her status not only within the state Republican Party but the national party, and would make her a prime candidate for a key position in the Justice Department if Mitt Romney wins," said Darryl Paulson, a Republican and retired University of South Florida political scientist.

"She'll be looked at as one of the emerging stars of the party."

Bondi would attract attention at the convention and probably land a key speaker spot, which has served as a political springboard for previous political figures, Paulson said.

"You get one of these at almost every convention — a rising star who gets a moment in the spotlight," he said.

Obama was one. His rise to national political prominence began with a speech at the 2004 Democratic convention.

Florida Republicans say Bondi deserves credit if the lawsuit wins.

"If that happens it's because Attorney General Bill McCollum did the right thing in the beginning and then Pam Bondi has absolutely done the right thing since," Gov. Rick Scott told a Hillsborough County GOP dinner crowd Saturday.

"If we do win, it's because of her efforts."

Tampa GOP political consultant Chris Ingram said Bondi has the right political persona to take advantage of the spotlight.

"The media loves her, she's had a lot of exposure" as a Fox News legal commentator, Ingram said. "This only helps if she decides to look at a higher office in the future, and if she's smart, she'll play it for all it's worth."

Still, he said, "There will always be an asterisk on it in that she was not the original complainant."

As a partisan victory, dealing a blow to Obama's health care plan could be a two-edged sword — as former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris learned after she became a national GOP hero.

Harris's role in the GOP's 2000 presidential election recount victory made her a party icon but also a politically divisive figure, reviled by Democrats and mistrusted by independents. She suffered an embarrassing loss in the 2006 U.S. Senate race and left politics.

Bondi could suffer partisan backlash, too, but likely not as much, said Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political scientist who's politically neutral.

"Public opinion is on her side. The average American wants to see it struck down, even though they agree with a lot of the individual parts of it," Jewett said. "If the parts people like go away, there could be some blowback."

He said Democrats viewed Harris as "cheating, rigging the game for political benefit," and rightly or wrongly, "She also acquired an image as an intellectual lightweight."

"Health care is a policy issue, less an overtly partisan cause, and Bondi seems fairly sharp in public interviews."

Still, some Democrats view the lawsuit as a purely partisan cause.

"It certainly was a political move, although that doesn't mean that people who are on a political side can't make a genuine constitutional argument," said Simon Lazarus, a Washington think tank analyst on domestic affairs and a former Carter administration official.

He called it "part of the scorched-earth strategy by Republicans to try to make sure President Obama accomplishes nothing."

Even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative firebrand, asked jokingly during oral arguments before the court whether "all 26 states opposing it have Republican governors, and all of the states supporting it have Democratic governors."

Attorney Clement, arguing the opponents' case, acknowledged, "There is a correlation."

Bondi said one Democratic attorney general signed onto the suit, Greg Phillips of Wyoming, but it's clearly a Republican project.

Democrats charged that McCollum, who filed the suit as he was beginning a Republican primary campaign for governor, did so for political gain.

In an interview, McCollum denied that, saying he was planning and working on the lawsuit in fall 2009, before Gov. Charlie Crist announced he would leave the office open to run for the U.S. Senate.

He also said Bondi deserves credit because she has done a good job handling the lawsuit, including hiring Clement.

In an interview this week, Bondi denied any political motive, saying, "Even before I was elected, I believed this was one of the most important things I could do" in the office.

"I've never believed it's partisan, and I've challenged any lawyer to show my justification for such an overreach by the federal government," she said.

Bondi also denied the case will raise her political profile and said she has no ambitions for higher office, but didn't completely rule it out.

"I am perfectly happy being attorney general, and I don't want to be governor," she said. "I'm tired of that question.

"I don't believe in seeking another office when you're currently in an office of great responsibility. Once you let outside influences affect you, you can't do your job effectively."


wmarch@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7761

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