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‘Grim Reaper’ enters race for Florida Attorney General

 Daniel Uhlfelder drew national media attention during the pandemic by dressing as the Grim Reaper and criticizing the state’s handling of COVID-19. He filed a lawsuit pushing the governor to close beaches as he raised concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.
Daniel Uhlfelder drew national media attention during the pandemic by dressing as the Grim Reaper and criticizing the state’s handling of COVID-19. He filed a lawsuit pushing the governor to close beaches as he raised concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

Democrat Daniel Uhlfelder, a Northwest Florida lawyer who drew national attention for dressing as the Grim Reaper as he criticized Gov. Ron DeSantis’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic, announced Tuesday he is running to try to unseat Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody.

A two-minute video released by Uhlfelder’s campaign on Twitter kicked off with the Santa Rosa Beach attorney scrolling on his cell phone while watching himself on cable news as he traversed state beaches in the Grim Reaper garb to call attention to DeSantis’ refusal to close beaches and order other restrictions as COVID-19 cases and deaths began to escalate in Florida.

“Actually, that’s me. Yeah, the guy in the costume,” Uhlfelder said in the video. “I’m just your average attorney and family man.”

The video of Uhlfelder, 49, highlighted his Jewish family’s history, saying his great-grandparents died in a concentration camp. The campaign announcement also included pictures of a young Uhlfelder with the late Lawton Chiles and Bob Graham, who both served as governor and in the U.S. Senate and are icons of state Democratic politics.

Uhlfelder also discussed his history of activism, including an effort to force local officials to remove the Confederate flag from its perch in front of the Walton County courthouse in DeFuniak Springs and opposition to a measure that blocked public access to beaches.

“And yes, when I was watching thousands of people dying from this deadly pandemic, I put on a costume to encourage people to stay home,” he said in the video. “Because when people are being oppressed, or left out, or made to feel like their lives don’t matter, it’s not in my DNA to let it slide.”

Uhlfelder has scrapped with DeSantis since the onset of the pandemic two years ago. The Panhandle attorney, who was educated at Stanford University and the University of Florida, is the focus of twin investigations after he filed a lawsuit in March 2020 asking a judge to order the governor to close beaches and issue a “safer-at-home” order to curb the spread of the virus.

Leon County Circuit Judge Kevin Carroll in April 2020 found that he lacked the authority to force the governor to shut down beaches and dismissed the case but encouraged Uhlfelder to pursue an appeal.

But in February 2021, a three-judge panel of the Tallahassee-based 1st District Court of Appeal asked The Florida Bar to consider sanctions against Uhlfelder, accusing the attorney of using the lawsuit as a publicity stunt. Days later, appellate Judges Brad Thomas, Susan Kelsey and Adam Tanenbaum took the rare step of ordering a state attorney to pursue sanctions against Uhlfelder because of a comment he made to a newspaper. Both cases remain pending.

In the Bar investigation, Uhlfelder’s lawyer submitted affidavits from former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis and former 1st District Court of Appeal Chief Judge Robert Benton arguing that Uhlfelder did nothing wrong.

“It is my opinion and legal view that the lawsuit and appeal were not frivolous,” Lewis, who served on the Supreme Court for 21 years until his retirement in 2019, wrote in documents provided to The News Service of Florida by Uhlfelder. “I submit this affidavit because it is my view that legal action, the independence of counsel and requirements that lawyers be strong advocates are pillars of our democracy. The independence of the judiciary is also key to preserving our liberties and independence of counsel essential to our adversarial system.”

Uhlfelder entered the race after Aramis Ayala, an Orlando Democrat who was Florida’s first Black state attorney, announced last week she is running to replace Moody. Ayala and her family were in the Capitol on Tuesday as Uhlfelder’s announcement was released, setting up a Democratic primary battle.

“I’m concerned about nothing else but November 8th. That is the general election. That is where the fight will be,” Ayala told The News Service of Florida in an interview.

Uhlfelder’s campaign video also focused on Moody, who has joined DeSantis in challenging the Biden administration’s policies on such issues as COVID-19 restrictions and immigration.

“Floridians deserve an attorney general who actually wants to do the job of an attorney general, not be the governor’s personal attorney, someone who will advocate for voting rights, consumer rights, fundamental human rights, instead of someone who is there to push a harmful political agenda just to advance her own political career,” Uhlfelder said in the announcement.

Christina Johnson, Moody’s campaign spokeswoman, did not comment on Uhlfelder’s candidacy, but she pointed to the attorney general’s reaction to Ayala’s announcement last week.

“It’s clear that the Democrats, obsessed with defunding the police, have struggled to recruit a candidate to run for the office of attorney general. Desperate and disorganized, they have now turned to a radical ex-prosecutor who has a history of failing to defend our police,” Johnson said at the time.