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We went on a date with the state attorney candidates

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Lawson Lamar

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Jeff Ashton

"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.

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