Former State Attorney Jeff Ashton is once again entering the political ring, this time running for Circuit Court Judge.
No doubt he’s remembering his upset victory of State Attorney Lawson Lamar in 2012 right after his fame reached its peak during the Casey Anthony trial.
That upset shocked many in the political establishment: Lamar was a household name who was frequently sought out by other local politicians for endorsements and photo-ops during campaign season.
If folks had forgotten about Anthony and Jeff’s courtroom appearances, a Lifetime version of the story where Ashton was portrayed by none other than Rob Lowe certainly helped revive the story as Ashton took out a double-decade entrenched institution in Lamar.
But that’s just the beginning of Ashton’s story in office, and his amazing crash-and-burn during his one term is a story worth revisiting.
There were some early signs that Ashton might not be the leader he purported to be during his campaign. After all, he was reprimanded for his juvenile courtroom behavior during the Anthony trial and had a history of this type of behavior throughout his career.
It’s one thing to be the class clown when you’re one of many prosecutors, but at the top, leadership requires a little more. Ironically, Ashton’s celebrity is based not on success, but on his failure to convict Casey Anthony, whom the entire country had already judged as guilty.
And Ashton’s quip about his opposing counsel, Hispanic attorney Jose Baez, being a “cockroach” seemed to lack the decorum and display a troubling lack of sensitivity or couth that the office of State Attorney would demand. (Never mind the racial overtones, which were fully exposed later.)
The office certainly went to Ashton’s head, or maybe it was his self-perceived celebrity. He famously called his staff “morons” and in his zeal to reform the office in his own model, Ashton opened himself up to his greatest failure as a State Attorney: He failed to ensure equal protection of the law.
Ashton wanted to do away with a division inside the office that controlled how criminals were charged so that individual prosecutors controlled those decisions on a case-by-case basis.
Sounds like a good idea, except that it opened the office up to very real charges that people of different color were charged differently for the same crime. Current State Attorney Aramis Ayala drove that home to voters when she upset Ashton in 2016.
The effective political attack went something like this: A white defendant and a black defendant were both charged with carjacking, but the white defendant got a much lighter sentence than the black one. In a Democratic primary, that was the kill shot Ayala needed to destroy Ashton’s reputation and send herself to victory. And she never even had to use Ashton’s most public moral failure to win.
In 2015, the Ashley Madison adult cheating website was hacked, and thousands of users were made public. One of those was Jeff Ashton, who famously cried begging forgiveness from his constituents while admitting that he visited the site looking to cheat on his wife. And he did it using office internet service meaning he was doing it while he should have been prosecuting bad guys.
With Ashton’s cheating libido on display for the world to see, the three-time married man was suddenly laid bare. It was a public admission that should have meant his downfall. But to Ayala’s credit, the issue never emerged in her defeat of Ashton.
The same certainly can’t be said now.
Ashton is running for Judge against Howard Friedman, a long-time well respected and well-decorated General Magistrate who has worked the hard cases in the 9th Judicial Circuit. From guardianship issues to school truancy, Friedman has been a stalwart for over a decade taking cases the other judges didn’t want.
Add to that his personal story of commitment to family and a wife who suffered a stroke and was on death’s door until recently, and you have the making of a war for the ages in circuit court judgeships.
But wait! There’s more.
Friedman’s wife, Annette, was until 2014 a prosecutor in the same office that Ashton worked and then ran. But while fighting long-term cancer, she was fired by Ashton right after finishing a trial.
That became the basis for a lawsuit that she successfully won for wrongful termination. But worse than that, under the strain of fighting her cancer and fighting off Ashton, she suffered a stroke that left her in a nursing home requiring round-the-clock care until just recently.
Her miraculous recovery is bad, bad news for Ashton as he’ll no doubt be faced – directly – with the results of his poor actions.
Why is Ashton running again? He was “done with politics” after the 2016 drubbing by Ayala. Maybe he needs the money or maybe he’s again seeking the fame he felt after the Anthony case, but interest in that has waned and now all he is left with is the sum of his misdeeds.
Adulterer, bad boss, racist? Is that his legacy?
One thing is for sure, with a slew of judicial races that will be boring at best, this one is set to keep Central Floridians’ interest and determine how Ashton is viewed in perpetuity.