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Incumbents Retrench (Tampa edition)

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  • | 6:00 p.m. May 14, 2004
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Incumbents Retrench (Tampa edition)

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Charles "Ed" Bergmann knows Beth Gilmore Reineke fairly well. The Tampa family law attorney has practiced in his court. Even so she recently dealt him a surprise. Two days prior to deadline, the solo practitioner filed and paid the qualifying fee to challenge him at the Aug. 31 primary election.

Nor did Circuit Judge Emmett "Lamar" Battles expect a re-election challenge. But Tampa criminal law attorney Donald A. Harrison surprised Battles at the eleventh-hour by filing and paying the qualifying fee.

To an extent the same is true for the three Hillsborough County judges facing re-election this year. Judges Charlotte Anderson, Artemeus Elton McNeil and Paul L. Huey each face competition at the polls.

With the exception of Anderson, however, each of the challengers targeted incumbents appointed over the past few years by Gov. Jeb Bush. Anderson is one of the more experienced local judicial campaigners, having won a contested election in 1994 and a contested re-election in 1998.

The challenge to the appointees is expected, says political consultant Vic DiMaio. Although he currently doesn't represent any of judicial candidates, DiMaio has helped elect other judicial candidates such as Vivian C. Maye, Kevin Carey and William P. Levens.

"The first person you would look at to run against is an appointee who has never run for anything before; most importantly in politics, someone who has little or no name recognition," DiMaio says. "That's the name of the game in politics, name recognition. That's normally what would scare off people initially from running against an incumbent judge, because a judge on the bench has heard enough cases to get his or her name in the paper.

"When people go into a booth to vote, unfortunately, it's not a matter of qualifications or endorsements by the newspaper," he adds. "It's a matter of whether that person recognizes the name. They vote for who they feel more familiar with."

But it doesn't necessarily mean prospective judicial candidates waged an all-out rush this election cycle in Hillsborough against Bush appointees. In fact, most of the appointees won re-election without opposition on May 7 when the county's election filing deadline passed.

Those circuit judges who ran unopposed and automatically won re-election are Manual A. Lopez, Debra K. Behnke, Anthony K. Black, Denise Almeida Pomponio, Susan Sexton and William Fuente. Lopez, Black, and Pomponio are Bush appointees.

The same is true for the county judges who automatically won re-election. They are James V. Dominguez, Nick Nazaretian, Michelle Sisco and Raul C. Palomino Jr. Nazaretian and Sisco are Bush appointees.

Of six contested judicial races this election cycle in Hillsborough, the most hotly contested appears to be the one to replace retiring county Judge Elvin Martinez. The proof is in the campaign finances reported so far.

Three Tampa lawyers want to replace Martinez: Henry Gill, in-house counsel at Chubb & Son; Elizabeth Rice, bankruptcy attorney at Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson PA; and solo practitioner Brad Souders.

As of the second week of April, Souders led all three candidates in campaign fundraising. He reported $100,150, though the amount included a $75,000 loan to himself. Most recently Souders, who failed in an election bid for circuit judge in 2002, spent some of that money to buy a full-page political advertisement in the May issue of Lawyer magazine, the Hillsborough County Bar Association publication.

On the other hand, Rice leads all three candidates in total number of campaign contributors. The former president of the Florida Bar's Young Lawyers Division reported that 272 donors contributed $44,297 as of the second week of April.

Gill, a late entrant in the race, reported $3,175 in campaign contributions for the first-quarter this year. This is his second bid for public office. The former assistant state attorney general ran unsuccessfully in 2000 for District 56 of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In DiMaio's view, Gill possesses the best qualifications on paper, with his years of experience; Rice presents an attractive alternative to the county's majority block of women voters; but Souders has the name recognition.

"If he did a poll today, you would see Brad Souders in the lead because he has the highest name recognition in that race," he says. "In that race, Henry Gill is the most qualified, yet he came in late. In the money- raising department, which pays for all the signs and TV ads, he's got the most catching up to do. This is a guy who has worked under seven attorney generals and ran the RTC (Resolution Trust Corp.) office here.

"I don't see anybody getting 50% in that race," he adds. "The one thing in Liz Rice's favor is there are more women voters than men. Then you have two men vs. one woman. Looking at it pragmatically, that's what's going in favor."

But that is just one of the six contested judicial races this election cycle. Five others involve incumbents.

Vance vs. Anderson

One of the earliest challenges this election cycle came from Kim Hernandez Vance. The commercial litigation partner at Cohn & Cohn PA seeks the job that Judge Charlotte Anderson has held since 1994.

Vance challenged a judge who has spent the past two years as the appointed administrator of the county court's civil division.

Shortly after her first election, Anderson took on an ambitious project in the court's domestic violence division. She created a system that tracks protective injunctions and encouraged the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department to act as a clearinghouse for all local law enforcement agencies. The system reduced the time domestic violence victims had to wait for injunctive relief.

Besides her court work, Anderson also is active in the community, particularly with the Hillsborough Association for Retarded Citizens. Because of her volunteer contributions, the association has created the Charlotte Anderson Meritorious Service Award.

Her competitor is a former certified public accountant who returned to school in the mid-1990s and earned a law degree from the Stetson University College of Law. Since entering law school, she aspired to become a judge. "From the day I stepped foot into law school that's been my goal," she says.

Vance, a second-generation Tampa resident, picked this race specifically because she does not know Anderson. "I went through the process of going through the list of judges (up for election)," she says. "When I found out there wasn't going to be another round of (judicial) elections until two years - there won't be any next year - I decided I didn't wait that long."

An AV-rate attorney by Martindale-Hubbell, Vance says her background as a civil litigator makes her a qualified candidate. "I have the training and demeanor to be an impartial arbiter," she adds.

Debock vs. McNeil

Career-long aspirations spurred Chris Debock, a former prosecutor and public defender, to challenge McNeil.

Appointed in May last year, McNeil serves as a county civil judge. He anticipated a challenge because of his status as an appointed judge. He has embarked on a grassroots re-election campaign.

McNeil says his work the past year as a civil judge should set aside any doubts about his capabilities. He attributes his 13 years experience as an assistant state attorney as an important foundation for his work as a judge. For instance, as a prosecutor he worked closely with young state attorneys. He considers that experience a valuable guide for working with the attorneys and pro se litigants who appear before him.

"There was a civil gap in my resume, but not any more," he says. "I was thrown head first into the arena. I put in an extraordinary amount of early hard work, staying real late putting in the hours and learning with the help of some fine civil judges already on the bench.

"I'm quite confident, I'm very comfortable, and if you had a chance to talk with some of the attorneys who have come before me I think on a grade of one to 10, with 10 being the top grade, I would say I earned an eight," he adds.

The decision by Debock to challenge McNeil came after he previously announced his intent to run against Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt. Debock spent 10 years as an assistant public defender until his termination, which he attributes to Holt's cost-cutting measures.

Debock's experience includes five years as an assistant Broward county state attorney, more than 10 years in private practice and one year's work representing death row clients. The Florida Supreme Court twice reprimanded him, though he received only a 30-day suspension in one instance and a small fine in the other case.

Just as most of the challengers, Debock has no particular issue with McNeil. Debock thinks his courtroom experience - having worked around 300 jury trials - makes him the best candidate.

"I had always planned on running for judge," he says.

Veschio vs. Huey

There is nothing about Huey's performance as judge that encouraged Victor Veschio to challenge him.

But Huey already is talking about experience as the key to this race. He has been reassigned several times since his appointment in 2001 and now serves as an administrative judge at the pleasure of Chief Judge Manuel Menendez.

"You're talking to the most traveled judge in history," he says. "I started in county civil. After about five months I was transferred to criminal. After about five months, I was made by administrative order a circuit judge to handle a family division for six months. Then I came back to a county civil division, and now I reside in criminal domestic violence.

A former CPA, Huey returned to school to earn a law degree in 1985 from Duke University. He is a board certified in business litigation, having worked at the predecessor of Trenam Kemker Scharf Barkin Frye O'Neill & Mullis PA and then at Bush Ross Gardner Warren & Rudy PA.

"I believe I bring a strong work ethic," Huey says. "Because I've moved around so much, I looked for ways to promote efficiencies for the sake of the citizens in the system. I come with the attitude that everybody who comes into my court deserves their time to speak and have their cause heard."

Veschio discovered a love of the law while volunteering in the 1980s to the county's guardian ad litem program. That's why he went to work as a legal assistant at a predecessor of Nixon & Associates PA, a creditor's rights firm. That experience encouraged him to earn a law degree in 1998 from the Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich.

Following law school, Veschio returned to Nixon & Associates. He says his experience as a child advocate, coupled with his work in the area of creditor's rights, makes him a qualified candidate.

Harrison vs. Battles

The issue in this race is simple, says challenger Donald A. Harrison, a solo practitioner who focuses on criminal law and worked for years in management for the Kash n' Karry chain prior to earning a law degree in 1999 from Stetson. He has no issue with Battles' performance as a circuit judge.

"My biggest thing is that we live in a democracy, where judges should be elected," Harrison says. "And the majority of the judges in the circuit right now have been appointed. Judge Battles is one of those appointments. This is something I had been thinking about on my own for the past several weeks.

"Years ago when I got involved in the legal profession, the unspoken rule in Hillsborough was not to run against Hillsborough judges," he says. "As I became more involved in the system, it became apparent to me the vast majority of the judges have been appointed. So being an individual who is very political, I think that circumvents the goal of our democracy."

It's a simple issue for Battles, too, a 2002 Bush appointee. He speaks proudly about his accomplishments, especially his experience as a retired U.S. Army colonel assigned to the Judge Advocate General's Corps.

"I'm looking forward to a positive campaign to highlight my more than 30 years service to our country, state and community," he says. "I've been a member of the Florida Bar for over 23 years; my opponent for less than five."

Although he did not anticipate a challenge, Battles says he had formed a campaign committee and started basic preparations just in case of a challenge.

Up until just recently, Battles served in the juvenile delinquency division. Because of Battles performance, Menendez recently reassigned him to the circuit civil division.

"As far as this campaign goes, I have served with honor and distinction as a judge and in every position I've held in my life of public service," he says. "In my campaign, I'll highlight that record of service, my qualifications and experience and the common sense and good judgment that make me a good judge."

Reineke vs. Bergmann

Of all the races, this race may be the most contentious. Reineke, who practices before Bergmann as a board certified family law attorney, is taking the offensive. She questions the commitment of Bergmann, a board certified civil trial attorney, to the family law division.

"It's not anything about the incumbent," she says. "I've had cases before Judge Bergmann. He's made a lot of good changes in the division. But I have a family law background. I want to be appointed to the family law division. I'm not going in there to do my time and be rotated out.

"With all due respect to Judge Bergmann, he's just doing time and that shows," she says. "That's not what I'm about."

On graduating in 1990 from the University of Florida, Reineke worked in the area of civil litigation at the former law firm of Lawson McWhirter Grandoff & Reeves PA. After about three years, she decided to open her own practice. Client demand encouraged her to specialize in family law.

"I think I can make a difference," she says. "If I can get elected to the bench and get assigned to the family division, lasting changes can be made."

Appointed in February 2002, Bergmann earned a law degree in 1970 from the University of Florida. But a military commitment interrupted his law practice. When he returned, he spent the next 25 years with Yado Keel & Nelson and its successor firms.

Over the years, Bergmann says he handled most facets of law, including family law. He says it's a misnomer to think he gives the family law anything less than his best.

"I think I've always been patient, but (family law) has shown me the value of patience, the value of listening to both sides and keeping an open mind," he says.

That patience is critical, he says, because from 50% to 60% of the litigants are pro se.

"If you haven't had some life experience, it makes it hard for someone to think not necessarily that you agree with their reasoning but that you understand their perception with what is going on," he says. "So you have to have patience. Unfortunately, many times, there is no judicial solution; their problems are financial.

"I've told people on many occasions that although the state has invested me with a great deal of power, they didn't give the power to create money where no money exists," he adds. "These are poor folks struggling before with one household and now will be struggling with two households. You can be sympathetic, but obviously we have to apply the law. We have to follow the law and apply it. My philosophy is you apply the law as set out in the statutes or case law, and if we don't do that we get ad hoc justice as to what my attitude is versus what the law is."


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