Florida’s first woman attorney general shares her political and personal path
What was your impetus for going to law school and then to prosecute for 18 years before serving as Florida’s first woman attorney general?
I went to the University of Florida, and I did not know what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to get a law degree, but I never knew if I wanted to practice law. And so my last year in law school, the state attorney at the time went to church with us. His name was Mr. Bill James, and he talked me into signing up for a clinic at my law school. In hindsight, I think he and my dad had conspired. When you do that, you actually work in a Public Defender’s Office or a State Attorney’s Office. I chose the State Attorney’s Office. It’s a class that you take through your school, and when you do that, the Supreme Court will certify you, so you can actually try jury trials when you’re still in law school. At the time I thought this is the last thing that I want to do. And within a month I was trying cases. I tried four jury trials when I was still in law school. Since that time I never wanted to do anything else.
And your father was a mayor?
He was. My whole family are educators. My dad, we lost him to leukemia three years ago, was a professor at USF, a doctorate, and my mom taught kindergarten. My sister was a principal, one of the youngest in the county, and all my great-aunts and uncles, my grandparents, were all educators, and then I went into law. And, again, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to practice until I did that internship. For me, it was all about victims and helping people.
How did the transition from being a prosecutor to running for public office come about?
Well, I was at the State Attorney’s Office almost 18 years, and I loved it. I would always tell my young lawyers, “When you stop loving the job, that’s when it’s time to leave.” And I never stopped loving it. And so a lot of people approached me about running for attorney general. This probably went on almost a year, months and months and months, and that’s why I was the last one to announce I was running. It was a horribly tough decision for me. And so with the help of my family and my friends, we made the decision to do it. As a prosecutor, you’re dealing with victims one-on-one. At the time, I was actually in the middle of a big wiretap. I also was in the middle of a homicide case. This made the decision harder even though they were well taken care of by trial partners. The night before I announced, my team really did not think I was going to do it. I was the last one to announce because I was leaving a job that I loved.
So what was the catalyst for making the final decision?
Well, for me it was about changing the state. I started looking at Tallahassee, and no criticism to anyone in Tallahassee, I just thought the system needed to be changed. I thought I could make a difference. I never knew if I could win. I had no name recognition. I’d only been a prosecutor. I had turned down some very lucrative jobs throughout the years, but it was never about money. It was always about being a prosecutor because I loved my job. Within months of announcing I was running, I started learning that seven Floridians were dying a day, every day, from prescription drug overdose, and nothing had been done about it. I thought, “Wow, I think I can make a difference here.” And everywhere I went to speak to groups, whether it was an affluent country club or a county center where women and men of all different ages and demographics were there, I would also address domestic violence, and, after every single talk, someone would quietly come up to me and tell me that they were abused and some had been scared to report it. So I thought, “Wow, maybe I can make a difference here as well.” That just kept me going and kept me fighting. Now I’m very blessed to be Florida’s attorney general.
Your father was a mayor in your formative years. Did that at all impact your decision making?
I was a little girl. My sister and I were very little. Of course, we remember him running and campaigning. He was a city councilman and mayor, but he was a full-time college professor. So he got paid a dollar a year. You know, it’s honorary. But I saw how much hard work and time he put into being mayor of Temple Terrace, which is the suburb of Tampa where I grew up. He loved it. So when I decided to run, it was definitely a family decision with both my parents and my dad always thought it was great. My dad and mom always thought there was nothing I couldn’t do.
It takes some courage to run for the attorney general of a state as large as Florida. Was that belief that there was nothing that you couldn’t do your impetus really for engaging?
It was. Change is hard for me. I’ve only had one legal job my entire life. And then I went from being a career prosecutor to running for an office, a statewide office in the third largest state in our country. What inspired me was meeting the people throughout our state.
Now we’re sitting in your Tampa office. You actually commuted on the weekends from Tallahassee to Tampa when you’re in session?
Oh, yes, cabinet meetings, session. I have 12 offices throughout the state from Miami all the way to the Panhandle.
How often do you visit each?
I haven’t been in Miami as much recently as I want to be. That’s my goal. I am soon going to be back in my South Florida offices. I was there a lot my first few years because it needed a lot of restructuring. Florida’s Medicaid Capital — really of the country — is in Miami. And so, when I was in my Miami offices, there were lights off, empty offices. I found out my entire Medicaid Fraud Unit was based up in Tallahassee. That didn’t make sense, so we restructured that unit. We moved and then we added a tremendous amount of investigators, lawyers. We’re fighting Medicaid fraud. We’re helping our citizens. So I was down in South Florida a lot in the early years to get that established. But now I’m in Central Florida a lot. I am all over the state, back and forth from Tallahassee. My main office is in Tallahassee. I also have a residence in Tallahassee.
Is there a period of time that you would say was your most enjoyable time in your life?
Probably my early years prosecuting and trying homicides. I loved it. I loved being in the courtroom. I had a female judge, Judge Barbara Fleischer, who I practiced in front of for many years; she was always tougher on the women. We would have to be in court at 6:30 in the morning on many days to be ready. We carried huge caseloads, and I think she’s what made me a better attorney. Now I love my staff and co-workers here.
You are term limited constitutionally?
Yes, I have an expiration date of 2018. In Florida, we’re two-term limited.
So what happens from there?
You know, right now, and this isn’t a political answer, I am focused on being attorney general for the next two years. I always see people who are in one office looking for the next step. This is one of the reasons I ran. There were always people who were in one office running for the next, and, again, no criticism to my predecessors.
So this wasn’t a step on a stairway climb for you?
Oh no, no. I loved being a prosecutor and had been approached about some really incredibly lucrative positions around the country in other states. It was never about money. It was about being a prosecutor. I loved my job, and I never wanted to be away from my family. I loved being in Tampa and being a Floridian.
Is that part of being a statesman that you sacrifice for a larger purpose?
I hope everyone who’s in an elected office feels that way. That’s how it should be. I firmly feel that our Founders meant for us to leave our jobs, go serve our state, serve our country, and then, at some point, return to our jobs instead of just being a career, your entire career from day one, running from office to office to office.
And that was one of your talking points when you were running?
Well, I know I don’t want to be governor, and I’ve said that from day one. Everyone says attorneys general always run for governor. Certainly, I have been approached about running for governor because we’re all termed out. I’ve said absolutely not. But for the next two years, there’s so much I want to get accomplished.
What has changed since you were a small girl watching your father participate in local elections?
Well, now there’s social media. That’s a very good thing, and it’s a very bad thing. I can actually tie that into something that I want to do in the next year or two. We’re seeing a rise in suicides and bullying in schools because of social media. Kids now can Snapchat, they Instagram, they Facebook, they do things under different accounts with complete anonymity. They can be truly vicious to other kids. I am a grown adult, and when I read horrible, personal attacks about me — she’s fat, she’s ugly, she’s whatever — it hurts. As a human being, it hurts. And I keep thinking, “If it hurts me this way, what is it doing to these kids in their formative years?” We were all bullied when we were kids in school, but it’s risen to a whole new level now with social media, and I see it. I am shown horrible things on social media directed to kids all around the state. I recently met a beautiful young girl. She’s probably going to be a supermodel one day. She’s 14 and 6 feet tall and gorgeous, but she’s getting bullied because she’s so tall. I hear about social media bullying on every topic imaginable. There was a girl being bullied because of her religion. Her father showed me some of the things that they were doing to her on social media, and it was horrifying.
So how do you encourage young women to enter into the forays of politics knowing they will undergo personal attacks?
People always say I have a tough skin. I don’t. I have a very thin skin, but I don’t want that to change. I just try to ignore it. I don’t look at it. I try to stay focused on what is good and what is right and what inspires me. I encourage anyone interested in politics to find their way of coping. You know, every day there’s something you can do to help someone. We’re fighting a tremendous war on drugs in our country. Drug dealers are now manufacturing synthetic drugs, and I’m trying to sign emergency orders outlawing them. Human trafficking is very real. It’s very alive sadly in our country, in our state, and in our world. We’re doing everything we can to combat that. But there’s so much more that needs to be done.
So I guess what I’m hearing is your advice would be to recognize the brutality of personal attacks as a part of politics but to ignore it and focus on the purpose you have sought the office?
Absolutely, you have to. Every time you go through something difficult in life or a challenge, I firmly believe God keeps you going. God will put something there to inspire you and lift you up again in the midst of anything difficult. It’s a different culture in which we live now. And so people have to just stay focused on doing what’s right and not worry about what other people are saying.
Why are politics so nasty here? What is the impetus behind that?
You know, I TiVo everything and fast forward it because I cannot watch any of the commercials on every level of local, state, national politics. It’s so negative on both sides. The answer is, I don’t know. I’m part of Maggie’s List and Right Women, Right Now which focus on getting conservative women around the country to not to be scared to run for office. Maggie’s List, they do a great job encouraging women to get out there and run. A lot of women don’t feel they’re qualified initially, and they’re highly qualified.
Do you think that that’s a trend that will stay?
I hope so, supporting other women and getting women comfortable running is important. But, I also don’t think a woman should be elected just because she’s a woman. When I signed up to run for this, I didn’t even realize I was going to be the first female attorney general in Florida or the only female Republican attorney general in the country for many years. I ran because I was qualified, and I was a prosecutor for 18 years, and I actually practiced law my entire career. And so I think it’s not about whether you’re a woman or a man. It’s whether you have the qualifications to lead. That’s why we’re encouraging other women to run.
Who were the role models in your career that made long-term impacts on you?
There’s a federal judge and Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich. This woman is amazing. She is now a senior judge, trying cases back to back to back to back, three-month-long cases. She is amazing, and she’s an inspiration, not just because she is doing this at 79 years old, but because she is about being tough, being focused, looking ahead, and just doing what’s right. Professionally she is a big role model. I had a great boss at the State Attorney’s Office. His name is Mark Ober, and he is a big brother to me. He’s family to me. He is one of my rocks as well, and I still call him my boss. He’s a dear, dear friend. So I have a lot of lifelong friends who I can count on and depend on to always be there for me and a lot of new friends who are true friends as well. Of course my family and my mother, who is amazing.
How much effort do you make in retaining past friendships?
Lifelong friends are everything to me. That’s everything to me. When you take this job, you get a lot of new friends. Many will remain my friends for the rest of my life. But without a doubt my anchor is my lifelong friends. I still have some of the same friends I had in elementary school, high school, college, my sorority sisters. My friends really are my anchor. They are my support base. They are my network. They are always there for me. Some of them have been in my life 40 years, some 30 years, 20 years. But my lifelong friends are always going to be there, and that’s where I am so blessed. I am blessed to have a very close-knit group of women and men friends alike who I grew up with, and other than my family, that’s truly my saving point in life. It’s my safety. It’s my safe place. I have a lot of new friends, of course, since I took this job. But I’m very cautious who I let into my life for that reason.
Why are you cautious?
Because you don’t want to become cynical, but when you take on this job, you learn who your friends are and you learn who your friends aren’t. My dad always taught me to never forget. Everybody’s there for you when everything’s going great, but in the everyday life, it’s the people who stay the course, who are there for you during the good and bad. That’s my anchor.
Do you think that you will stay in the political arena?
I don’t know. I really don’t know, and I guess I need to make a decision sometime soon because I’m unemployed in two years. But, you know, I don’t want to let a career get in the way of a life. A lot can happen in two years, and I don’t know what my future holds yet for the first time because I’ve always had a job. I was always a prosecutor, and then I ran for attorney general and knew, if that didn’t work out, I could be a prosecutor again. So I don’t know what’s next, and that’s a bit frightening. Two years will fly by, and there is so much more to do.
I know you are passionate about your work and your family and your friends, but do you have any real hobbies?
I love to make jewelry and give it to my friends. It was funny, the other day one of my girlfriends was wearing this great pair of earrings. I said I love those, and she said you made those. I had made them years ago for her. So that’s my therapy, but I haven’t had the time since I’ve been attorney general. I love to shop. I love fashion. I love clothes. I love decorating.
Do you like traveling?
I love traveling. There are a lot more places I want to go in my lifetime
What do you want your legacy to be?
I hope it’s just helping people. The war on drugs is so important to me now. I keep going back to that, but it really is. Ridding our state of designer drugs is top priority. When I first took office, taking the Oxycodone off the streets was our top priority. Of the top 100 Oxycodone doctors that were dispensing in the entire country, 98 of them lived in Florida. We took on a big fight, and now none of the top 100 are living in Florida. Today a lot of our drugs are being manufactured in Asia. They’re coming into our country through the traditional smuggling routes of Canada and Mexico, and they’re hitting our state. They’re putting them in pill forms. They’re putting cocaine, (and/or) fentanyl, into a Xanax pill, and college kids are taking these thinking that it’s just one pill, and it’s killing them. In Pinellas County alone we had five deaths because of that. So that’s a new challenge as well as heroin, which has made a tremendous comeback. Heroin is really top of my list now because now it’s coming in a pill form. And so I’m working with my counterparts in New Hampshire. Joe Foster’s been amazing, all over the country we’re fighting the heroin epidemic. I’m co-chair of the National Attorneys General Substance Abuse Committee, I’m on the executive board of the National Attorneys General Council, and that’s very, very important to me. All that ties into the human trafficking because they’re immediately addicting young women and men to drugs making them truly captives. So it’s really circular. Date rape is also on the rise. We’re finding young women who are completely innocent, and someone has slipped a drug into their drink, even if they’re studying. I learned of a horrific case very recently, where a young woman had no memory of what happened to her and woke up just wearing a ripped t-shirt.
What is a typical day for you?
I’m an early riser, and I’m laughing because there’s no typical day. I wake up very, very early, 5:00 or 4:00, and start reading emails, taking notes of things I want to do, reading newspapers, news articles, trying to figure out what I can do by outlining my day. But there really is no typical day. I awoke this morning to a call of a horrific crime that someone needed my help with. Two weeks ago it was a rape, and today it was something else very violent. So there’s no typical day. I never dreamed that one day I would get a call from law enforcement and that there was a mass shooting in Orlando at Pulse Nightclub. Never dreamed that in all my lifetime that that would happen. We immediately dispensed all of our victim’s advocates from around the state to Orlando. We were there on the ground, and our advocates didn’t leave for weeks. They wouldn’t go home for Father’s Day. They had their families sending them more clothes because we were helping paying for funeral services. We were helping with counseling; we were helping flying in families. But you know what we really saw? There was so much love and unity in the aftermath of a horrible tragedy. That is what lifts you up, and that’s what keeps you going every day. Weeks later, so many of the families came back to us, and we saw the people who were injured but still survived healing and being thankful to be alive. That’s what makes this job worthwhile. It really does.
So if you had one piece of advice that you could give a young person who was trying to figure out their life’s calling because obviously, you found your life’s calling, how would you guide them?
Well, sometimes you fall into it. You know I would rather speak to a group of high school kids or college kids or do commencement speeches than anything else because I tell young women there are no glass ceilings. There aren’t. They were broken by a lot of great women that came before us, and you can do anything you want to do, you can be anyone you want to be, and just never give up. I was in law school, and I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, and sometimes God finds a path for you. Sometimes you just fall into it. I never dreamed I would be a prosecutor. Eight years ago I would have told you that you were crazy that I would ever run for any political office or be attorney general. So I think there’s a plan. I think you have to work hard and just stay focused on doing what’s right, but I don’t think you have to decide at a very early age. I always wanted to be a pediatrician, but I was horrible in math. That was my dream, to be a pediatrician, and look how that turned out.
Sleep, what time do you go to bed at night?
I try to go to bed at 9:00 or 10:00. I try. My mom and I have always needed eight hours sleep. I don’t get it anymore, obviously. So I’ve had to adjust to that. My dad and my brother could always stay up till 2:00 in the morning and get up at 6:00 or 7:00 and be fine, but that’s not me. I firmly believe you need a lot of sleep. You need rest. I’m trying to exercise more to stay healthy.
How do you balance sleep, exercise, and work?
Well, I haven’t been the best at exercising because I’m always on the road. I’m getting up early. I’m always rushing to get ready and out. I’m not blessed to have children yet. So hopefully, that will be part of my life down the road. But, when I do exercise, I feel better, and it gives me more energy, and it makes me a more positive person.
What does it mean to you to pay it forward?
I always say pay it forward. So whenever I can speak, I always say, if you want to intern with me, contact whoever is with me, and we will hire you as an intern. We have hired so many interns in my office through events — because that’s the great thing about being statewide. They can intern in any of my offices during the summer. I’ve had so many young girls, but some young men too, who say now they know what they want to do. They want to go to law school. They send me incredible letters. And letting them work with us, and see what we do, and seeing that they can make a difference, is paying it forward. So hopefully we’re changing lives, and we’re creating future people who don’t just want to go into the world and make a lot of money, but they want to give back. And so that’s what it’s all about.
First and second term, what was the big difference?
Wow. First term flew by. I thought eight years was a lifetime, and it really feels like eight months that I’ve been in office. It really does. And you learn how much you can accomplish in such a short time as four years, one term. But now, you know, midway into my second term, you learn that it’s different because I have a time limit.
Do you spend a lot of time with the Legislature?
During session we do. They work on it staff-to-staff level. We have so many great lawmakers. Our governor is incredible. You know, his background is very different than my background, and I love my fellow Cabinet members as well, but we’re all very different, and I’m the practicing lawyer. The governor’s been very supportive on all of our drug efforts, our human trafficking efforts, as well as the Legislature, and they’ve been tremendous partners in what we’re trying to do to make Florida the safest place to live, work, and raise a family.
Who helped to mold you to become who and what you are?
My parents. We lost my dad three years ago. So I still pick up the phone to call him still three years later. I have an extremely close family. I’m the oldest of three. I have a sister and a brother. I don’t know what I would do without my mom, and we had a very hard time with, of course, losing my dad to leukemia. But it just made us even closer, if that’s possible, and also my friends. My friends are my anchor. I think who molded my formative years as an attorney were my co-workers at the state attorney’s office, again Judge Fleischer, the judge who I practiced in front of who was so tough on me and really all the women. Mark Ober, who was my boss for many, many years at the State Attorney’s Office. He’s still our state attorney in Hillsborough County, and he encouraged me to run, and he said, “What are you thinking? You can do this. You can do this.”
So let’s end on this idea of “you can do this.” Why does believing in yourself matter?
Well, it has to because so many women don’t believe they can do it. They do not believe they can pursue their dreams. My sister has three amazing kids, and she was one of the youngest principals in Hillsborough County. Yet, she was the youngest to retire when one of her twins was born with Down syndrome. My niece, she’s the love of our lives, but my sister works harder than I will ever work within the home, and that’s why my niece and nephews are amazing. But then my sister-in-law works outside of the home as well and has found that incredible balance of being a great mom and working out of the home. So I think it’s about deciding what you want to do. I don’t think there are any limits. I think you just rise to the occasion, and I firmly believe God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.