TALLAHASSEE — Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody ran on a promise to keep her office out of politics. Two years later, she’s become one of Donald Trump’s biggest surrogates in the nation’s biggest swing state.
Moody, a former college Democrat whose family once sued Trump over a condominium dispute, has jumped into conservative causes with gusto, attending presidential campaign rallies and stepping out as a defender for the GOP president. She’s making appearances on right-wing media and has become a voice for the Republican Attorneys General Association.
In the run-up to the election, the former judge has taken on billionaire Michael Bloomberg and joined 10 other Republican attorneys general backing the Justice Department’s lawsuit against Google. And she could be at the center of the post-election fallout if the results in Florida are called into question.
Moody, until now a low-profile figure nationally, has quietly and quickly become a major Republican player in must-win Florida, proving to top GOP leaders across the country that she’s willing to leverage her office in an election year. And Moody stands to benefit whether Trump wins or loses: She could prove to be a formidable foe to Joe Biden, becoming a voice of opposition to a newly liberal Washington, or take advantage of being a key White House supporter in coming years.
“She’s incredibly talented and she’s exceptionally helpful as a political figure,” said Brian Ballard, a Republican fundraiser and lobbyist who once represented Trump. She’s a “huge asset” and has developed a good relationship with U.S. Attorney General William Barr, he said.
A senior adviser for the Florida Trump campaign called Moody “one of the best surrogates we have.”
This doesn’t mean that Moody, who was backed in the 2018 Republican primary by outgoing Attorney General Pam Bondi, has embraced the demonstrative passionate defense of Trump like her predecessor.
But her actions still appear to be at odds with her campaign promises that partisanship would have no place in her office.
She repeated that stance in an interview at the end of her first year in office with POLITICO.
“I did not campaign to be the attorney general to play politics with this office,” Moody said. “In my term as attorney general I will never do the bidding of anyone except the people of the state of Florida.”
Yet Moody — prodded in a phone call by DeSantis — made the decision to ask state and federal law enforcement officials in late September to investigate Bloomberg after it was announced the former New York City mayor had raised $16 million to help pay off court debts for people with felony convictions so they could register to vote. The move came right after a federal appeals court upheld a contentious voting law passed in 2019 that required felons to pay off outstanding legal financial obligations in order to be eligible.
In her push for an inquiry, Moody cited a Washington Post story that quoted a memo from the Bloomberg camp that said the money would help restore eligibility to Black and Hispanic voters, who are more likely to cast ballots for Democrats.
Public records obtained by POLITICO show that Moody had not seen the memo cited in the Post article.
But Moody made the move after other Trump allies likened the Bloomberg campaign to bribing voters to turn out for Biden. U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz was among Republicans who personally discussed the Bloomberg donations with Moody.
A Bloomberg spokesperson, Jason Schechter, has emphatically rejected the accusations against the former New York City mayor, and the push for a probe was denounced by Desmond Meade, the head of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a group that is paying court debts of released felons. So far the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has said it looking at information related to the donations but has not announced an investigation.
Moody declined recent requests for an interview but she has taken to conservative media to defend her decision.
“This went well beyond just an altruistic donation just to help people,” Moody told Newsmax, a conservative outlet sympathetic to Trump. “This was targeting a particular segment of folks to give over something of value to vote.”
Moody is an unlikely partisan pitbull. Her father was a judge, appointed to the Middle District of Florida in 2000 by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and she’s followed a career path that’s well-worn in Florida politics.
At the University of Florida, she was president of Florida Blue Key, a well-known student leadership group whose alumni includes Florida governors and U.S. senators from both parties. After working for a federal prosecutor, Moody, at 31, was elected a circuit judge in Hillsborough County, an urban area that includes Tampa. In 2006, her home county split politically: Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson won Hillsborough, as did Charlie Crist, at the time a Republican, in the race for governor.
She stepped down from the bench to run for attorney general, picking up the support of Bondi, a friend and fellow UF graduate. But Moody’s GOP credentials came under fire during a combative primary when her rivals noted she was a registered Democrat until early 1998, the same year Jeb Bush was elected governor.
Moody and members of her family once accused Trump of fraud in a dispute over a Tampa condominium project that was never built. The case was settled in 2011 and Moody has said she cannot discuss it.
The new Moody is bewildering to Sean Shaw, an attorney and former state legislator who ran against her in 2018.
Moody contended Shaw would be divisive and pursue a political agenda if elected, a stance that won her the endorsement of the Tampa Bay Times, a newspaper which editorializes frequently against Republicans in Tallahassee.
During that campaign debate, Moody said the job of attorney general “is not to advance a political agenda or pick topics that are personal to me and use the office to sue anybody I can come up with, even if I don’t have a legal basis to do it.”
“You are the lawyer of the people of the state of Florida, not the Republican establishment,” Shaw said in an interview. Moody’s request for an investigation into Bloomberg’s donations showed a “picture of what she actually is versus what she professed to be.”
Lauren Cassedy, a spokesperson for Moody, pushed back against Shaw’s comments.
“If Sean Shaw or anyone else was the attorney general, they would have been obligated to make the same referral,” Cassedy said. “Attorney General Moody takes very seriously her role and works in every decision to protect the rule of law and the integrity of the office. This is why after carefully reviewing relevant law, the attorney general attached public information and applicable laws to ensure transparency
Cassedy also pointed to a list of Moody’s involvement on issues that have included Democratic attorneys generals, including an investigation of vaping company Juul. Moody was also part of the leadership team with New York’s attorney general on an investigation into Facebook.
But during her 2018 campaign, Moody also pledged support for Trump, and she’s delivering on that promise.
Moody has maintained Florida’s involvement in high-profile conservative causes, including a lawsuit now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court that could dismantle the Affordable Care Act.
In 2019, she launched a successful battle against a proposed constitutional amendment to ban most semiautomatic rifles, prompting amendment proponents to label her a “pawn” for the National Rifle Association. Moody, however, has defended Florida’s law to raise the age to purchase rifles from 18 to 21. On the campaign trail, Moody said she opposed the law that was adopted in the wake of the deaths of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Her supporters point to her defense of the law as proof that she is not partisan.
Her clash with Bloomberg centers over the state’s felon voting law. Florida voters gave most released felons the right to vote in 2018, approving a ballot measure, Amendment 4, that ended the state’s lifetime ban. The following year, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a law requiring felons to pay any court debts in order to be eligible to vote. The law was upheld by a federal appeals court in September.
While the law continues to be litigated, the amendment’s organizers have been raising money to pay off court debts, a campaign that’s attracted support from entertainer John Legend, NBA superstar LeBron James and other celebrities.
But it was Bloomberg who drew the ire of GOP politicians.
Moody opposed Amendment 4, but in its aftermath she pledged to change Florida’s clemency process, which allows the governor and other elected officials to restore rights — including the right to vote — to felons. The process predated Amendment 4, but had become bogged down due to restrictions put in place by Bondi and then-Gov. Rick Scott.
Moody said she and her staff were working to craft a proposal that would aim to eliminate the backlog of thousands of released felons who want their rights restored.
“I think you will shortly see some movement,” Moody said — in December.
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