Get your head out of the Olympics for a minute, friends. Tuesday brings us another chance to exercise the most solemn of democratic freedoms afforded by this great nation of ours (as long as you haven't been kicked off the voter rolls as an alleged illegal). It's time to vote!
What's that you say? "Election day isn't until November and I have to get my hair done so if you could please pipe down and let me get on with doing what it is that I do, I would be much obliged."
We sympathize. Due to a policy dust-up known as the Great Yawn of Redistricting, many Democrats and Republicans in this year's partisan down-ticket stakes don't even have challengers to fend off in this election, so who the fuck cares? By a twist of fetid fate, though, there is one huge race people are watching. It also happens to be the least interesting because it involves musty old people going on about prosecutorial process beneath the still-lingering banner of "tot-mom" Casey Anthony. Oh, no.
Instead of repeating the same tired stump lines that both candidates for Orange-Osceola County state attorney already repeat over and over in public appearances, we decided to treat current officeholder Lawson Lamar and his scrappy opponent Jeff Ashton like regular people – the kind we might go on lunch dates with – so we could get to see the men behind the rhetoric.
Would they wear cologne, compliment our shoes, spit pieces of cheese without knowing it? These are the things that really matter: Are your state attorney candidates dreamboat dating material? Are they pin-up princes worthy of after-school fan fiction?
Well, no. But it was worth a go, right?
Ah, the glorious splendor of a rustic Italian eatery on a Wednesday at high noon. There's the clink-clank of silverware amid the wafts of garlic, the panic of servers rushing to meet the time constraints of the clocked-out lunch crews, and then – in a space where sense and sensibility collide, precisely at the back left corner of Il Pescatore off of Primrose Drive – there's Orange-Osceola County state attorney (and state attorney hopeful!), Lawson Lamar, flanked by a flack and forcing an uncharacteristic smile. But is it uncharacteristic? We wouldn't know. Lamar hasn't had to do much public pavement pounding for the last 23 years he's served on the prosecutorial throne. The man is a mystery waiting to be solved.
"I have handcuffs," he says as I scooch into what I understand to be his private booth. Uh-oh.
The occasion for this awkward meeting of the minds is not lost on anyone here, but Lamar is quick to point out that, due to his typically private nature and extremely heavy workload down at the courthouse, he's not much for this campaigning stuff. Generally perceived as a sort of grumpy uncle with morality (er, military) tattoos hidden beneath his tighty-whities, a workhorse with nascent political ambitions, a general of an imaginary army, Lamar is at once controlling (he does like to talk over you) and charming – even if he doesn't want to be on this date.
"First of all, I'm running a 98,500-case office, and I have not taken time off to campaign," he says. "My opponent is essentially working full days, full nights to campaign. I can't do that. I don't intend to do that."
More slagging of said opponent, Jeff Ashton (of Casey-palooza fame), follows with mentions of "whining" and whatnot, but the fact that Lamar is doing this while methodically stabbing the spaces between the tines of his fork with his knife is too distracting to let them sink in. Politics are more fun when there's stabbing.
As with most first dates, this one kicks off with a long history of Lamar-by-numbers, which is a lot like Central Florida crime-by-numbers, seeing as Lamar has been iron-fisting this community since the '70s. For a good 20 minutes, he gives a solid run-through of his professional biography. Military intelligence? Check. Upward mobility in the state attorney's office? Check. Elected to the vaunted title of Orange County Sheriff on a grass-roots, crime-hating platform in 1981? Check. He saw organized crime ("We had a Gambino influence here, satellited out of Tampa," he says, adding intrigue) taking advantage of the lack of criminal prosecution that one would associate with a region that blew up too quickly in the shadow of The Mouse. He wanted to do something about all the prostitution and exploitation a dusty old Florida postcard might imply.
"I took over a fairly disorganized sheriff's office," he says. "I put in normal management practices, normal patrol and investigation practices, established a liaison with the state attorney's office. We built a lot of cases. The problem was there was no jail space."
That meant that Lamar's new normal would come to include publicity stunts in the name of politics, like that one time when he gathered all the police chiefs and sheriffs that he knew and declared a "jail emergency!" much to the chagrin of the Orange County Board of Commissioners who were, to hear Lamar tell it, more interested in building sewers for sprawl – thereby bringing big campaign donations – than they were in dealing with crime.
"Thirteen days later, I was seated at the dais with the county commissioners and they're grinning and they're announcing a jail-construction plan," he grins. "Guess what happened: I led the state of Florida for seven years in crime reduction for any metro area, because we did normal law enforcement stuff."
Arpaio," he says, "but no pink underwear.")
"Have you eaten here before? The food is great! If you go down the center and below, the bottom half, the chicken Marsala is great, chicken piccata is fantastic, their salads are all wonderful, all the calzones, you name it!"
Now, we're dating. "Do you always order the same thing?" I ask.
"No, there's four things," he says, knife stabbing fork again. "But it's always the same salad."
Today it's the chicken piccata for him, just a (same) salad for me.
"You have one of the better jobs in town, you see?" he says. "You get to take one side, which is fun for you. Have you decided on a salad yet?"
Yes, it's a tri-colored number.
"I'm still a certified police officer, and you're very brave to sit there," he adds.
And that brings us to the elephant-sized calzone in the room. Lamar launched the inter-agency vice behemoth known as the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation back in 1978, a seemingly unwieldy bunch of undercover lovers assigned to strip clubs and massage parlors ever since. In fact, back in 2007, this humble reporter had the honor of hiding behind a Dumpster at a hotel when the MBI took down three of Orlando Weekly's classified advertising sales reps for selling ads to masseuses with cameras in their pocketbooks. So, I'm on a date with my ex, then.
"But, you know the MBI has been criticized for overstepping some bounds in the past," I blink and blink and blink.
"The board believes that the MBI is well-regulated. We believe that the MBI works truthfully. If it were not, we would do something about that," he grimaces.
And if you peer beneath Lamar's prepared arsenal of aggregated moral aggravation, there is the sense that he really does believe in doing the right thing. He doesn't like seeing young, trafficked girls being "thrown away like Dixie Cups"; he's working to keep kids out of jail through truancy programs that issue citations in lieu of charges; he hates the idea of murdered babies, as anyone does; he detests political corruption and police brutality ("The notion that I've been protecting police officers is beyond hokum," he drawls; the coveted state and local Fraternal Order of Police endorsement went to Ashton on July 26). He gets death threats, like recent ones from a white supremacist group he indicted in Osceola County. In one sense, Lawson Lamar is a born leader in the way that he likes to take an omnipotent approach – one he regularly compares to that of a military general – in a similar construct to the chief executive officer of a corporation, like General Motors, which is one that he cites. Also, to be clear: "I don't hate the Weekly," he says.
Phew. But as for opponent Ashton, who has worked under Lamar for the entirety of his tenure as State Attorney (before bowing out after the Anthony fracas last year), the reconciliation is less forthcoming. "No one would have known who my opponent is but for the fact that he sought publicity in the Casey Anthony case," Lamar says, adding that he had to ask Ashton to "please control his emotions" six times during that media circus. Though he claims to go to bed with justice on his mind every night, emotion is one thing that Lamar doesn't seem to want to allow to interfere with criminal prosecution.
"That's how we play," he says. "I can't play any other way. It may sound stiff, but that's what we do."
But stiff isn't really Lamar's style, not when it comes to paying checks. "Let me get it all," he says, chivalrously. Nope. I'm a man of the law. Especially when there are handcuffs present.
Menu Choice: Pollo Piccatta ($9.95)
Biggest jab at opponent: "No one would know who my opponent is but for the fact that he sought publicity in the Casey Anthony case!"
Overall datability: ★★★
It isn't long after I spring into the middle-of-the-road Americana of Johnny's Diner on South Semoran Boulevard in Winter Park – in a strip mall, mind – that the imposing figure of (some say) celebrity prosecutor Jeff Ashton casts its television-ready shadow. Ashton, whose signature salt-and-pepper giggles and smirks come off more as nerves than ebullience, is an awkward sort, the kind of guy that has 3,000 other things he would rather be doing (quadratic equations, tree-climbing) than talking about himself, hunched over in a serviceable greasy spoon.
"It makes for an interesting race, especially now that it's an open primary," his eyes meet everyone else's but mine. "Because everybody pretty much wants the same thing: Everybody wants to be safe, everybody wants the system to be efficient. Sometimes there's debate on which tools that you use to be more effective."
Just as we're settling into our apolitical (yet somehow political) musings on the state attorney's race that doesn't really involve any enlightened political positions, an elderly diner approaches the table.
"I don't live in Orange County," the stranger offers, hand out for a shake. "Good luck on your election." ("Thank you for your good wishes," etc., follows.)
America came to know and hate television's adorable attorney cad when he failed to convict one Casey Anthony in last year's highly publicized circus of the scars. But, to be fair, everybody hates defense attorney Jose Baez way more, so Ashton's something of a sympathetic hero by default.
"It actually was less of a circus than we thought it would be," Ashton recalls. "We had visions of funnel-cake vendors. It never got that bad, so we were happy about that."
But, now that the mild-mannered married father of six has thrust himself back into the public eye via a bestselling book, Imperfect Justice, and a fairly caustic political campaign against a tenured monarch, the circus remains alive and well. And, clearly, that's part of what Ashton is banking on.
"What celebrity I have, I have because [Lamar] put me in that chair. I didn't lobby for it," he says. "I think when Lawson uses the word 'celebrity,' what he really means is name recognition, which in politics is everything." A waitress approaches, and Ashton's flack spends an inordinate amount of time justifying the meaning of a gyro salad before Ashton shoots from the hip and goes for the club sandwich. Me? Grilled cheese, of course.
"So, what's your relationship with Lamar really like," I fish through my Lauren Rowe purse of subject-changers.
"My relationship with Lawson was really good," he says. "I know it seems weird to say it. My relationship with Lawson was much better than my relationship with his office. … He would brag about me to people. He was very interested in what I was doing."
But what about what Lawson was doing? So, you know when a lunch date goes really stale, and your mind starts racing toward things that you shouldn't say and then you can't stop your mouth from saying things that other people might hear? Try this on for size:
"Lawson has headed up the MBI from day one. Are you aware of the MBI's practices?" I ask. "You know, like when testosterone overload leads to steamy sex affair stuff: Blowing on vaginas for stink, emailing photos of penises on agency-issued cell phones? Is this law enforcement?"
About 500 words of "I don't know what you're talking about" follow as my mouth curdles with hot American cheese before Ashton's nervous laughter settles on a statement.
"You're going for the gusto!" he says. "Some illegal conduct is necessary for investigation, but it has to be weighed. You have to say, 'Is this conduct that we're engaging in – in other words, the harm that we're trying to prevent – is it greater than the harm we're causing by the public's lack of confidence in us?' So it's one of those balances."
Balance is boring. Would he consider shutting down the MBI?
"The one thing I know I would not do is, I would not have the legal advisers for the MBI make charging decisions," he says. "Their role, if it continues, would be to advise the officers themselves."
But Ashton, who is a very tall man, does maintain a soft spot for the much-maligned massage industry in Central Florida, a frequent target of the MBI. While he doesn't support "happy endings," he doesn't paint the industry with quite as wide a brush as his opponent. Case in point: He isn't fond of the MBI's practice of anointing unlicensed masseuses with felonies when state law mandates that they only be strapped with misdemeanors.
"The MBI had sort of, I thought, stretched a crime of practicing medicine without a license to its breaking point to charge these young women with a felony," he says, adding, "You have to say, is this stopping human trafficking really, or does it just make it look like we're doing something. To me, that's the big question."
At about this time, Ashton does just what Ashton probably did in middle school after band practice while sitting out P.E. There is an incident. Ashton's napkin has gone missing. Where could it have gone? A slight panic overtakes the entirely false bonhomie of an everyday lunch in an everyday diner.
"There it is. Hold on. This is awkward," he says, as he contorts in a surprisingly angular way down toward the floor beneath his feet to retrieve his face-wiper.
While it may be hard to follow up physical comedy with contentious stump speaking, Ashton makes the most of it, repeating the words "efficiency" and "bureaucracy" at least 20 times in describing the failed morale of the state attorney's office under Lamar. In Ashton's approximation, the whole office is a shambles of lowest common denominators dictating policy – if one person is lazy, every person is lazy – thanks in no small part to a lack of technological innovation. "Oh, yeah. [The leadership does] not trust the lawyers. That's why they didn't have the Internet until last year. And that lack of trust is clearly communicated to them," he says.
But not directly by Lamar, Ashton says. In fact, Lamar reminds Ashton of the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz, though surely not in a friend-of-Dorothy kind of way. He's never there when you need him.
"The problem is that unfortunately for 40 years, no one's noticed what the state attorney's office does," he says, putting his napkin on his plate. "And thanks to [the Casey Anthony] case, people are now paying attention. It's sad that the office-holder is disturbed by the fact that people are paying attention to his job now. Every employee in the state attorney's office gets a performance evaluation. I have three or four in my life. Lawson's never had one. This is his."
And with that, Ashton is rushed off to a photo-op at a forensics lab in order to demonstrate his prosecutorial aplomb. He is running late.
"He drives fast," his flack assures me. Hopefully not fast enough to break the law!
Menu Choice: Club Sandwich ($5.50)
Biggest jab at opponent: "Apparently he only fears largely African-American audiences, because those are the [events] he drops out of."
Overall datability: ★★