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Im loses; Greer wins

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  • | 6:00 p.m. September 3, 2004
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Im loses; Greer wins

Controversial judicial races in Pinellas County produce bittersweet results for incumbents.

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

The defeat of Pinellas County Judge Sonny Im at the Aug. 31 primary stunned his supporters, including other judges.

John D. Carballo upset Im in a close race. The assistant Pinellas public defender earned 53.82% of the unofficial popular vote, while the judicial appointee and first-time candidate received 46.18%.

Judges at campaign parties on both sides of the bay openly rooted for Im, a popular judge among many of his peers, and uttered disappointment as his opponent, an assistant public defender, surged ahead during the hours after the polls closed. Yet, none would talk publicly about their disappointment for fear of retaliation from judicial watchdogs.

iI think Judge Imis race was a surprise to some,i acknowledges Circuit Judge George W. Greer, who won a hotly contested re-election race against challenger Jan Govan. Greer declined further comment about the Im-Carballo race.

Controversies quickly dominated Im and Greeris campaigns this primary election for a number of reasons.

The appointment Im received in 2002 from Gov. Jeb Bush quickly made him a prime political target for opposition despite the judicial seatis nonpartisan classification.

Carballo says he simply saw the election as an opportunity to enhance the 19 years of public service he has given to the community as a public defender.

iIim just honored to have been elected by the citizens of Pinellas County,i Carballo says. iIim ready to work and work hard.i

Thatis the only message Carballo says he ever wanted to convey. Those who monitored Carballois campaign say he did so honorably.

iI tried to get my qualifications out there,i he says. iMy experience, my reputation, my integrity. I think the voters did their homework.i

But, as in many political contests, the debate turned vociferous. People in the community asked tough questions about Carballois campaign.

In the June 18 issue of GCBR, retired political consultant Mary Repper, who made a mark in the Tampa Bay area as a political strategist, openly questioned the political campaigns that targeted minority incumbent judges. That included Hillsborough County Judge Art McNeil, Pasco County Judge Debra Roberts and Im, the stateis first Korean-American judge. All but Im won bids to retain their seats on the bench.

Rather than focusing on political ideals, Repper questioned whether such campaigns sought strategic advantage with a mostly conservative Caucasian electorate.

iI think (Im) had to be selected for a reason, and if heis popular and thereis been no issues that have arisen in a public kind of setting that make him vulnerable, it leads to the question: Why is he being challenged?i Repper said. iIive only had clients run against incumbent sitting judges when I was absolutely convinced of the fact that they needed to be replaced.i

Such an assertion is ludicrous say those who know Carballo, and he would not comment about the issue. He expressed disappointment about the context in which his comments were used in the GCBR article.

It didnit help Imis cause when he referred to Carballo as a ipublic offenderi at a Fraternal Order of Police forum. The gaff caused considerable consternation at the Pinellas public defenderis office. The agency advised the Pinellas courts that the public defenders would ask Im to recuse himself from any criminal case they represented. So far, the court reports the agency has not acted on that advisory.

Those who know Im say heis a jovial person quick with a joke. No insult was intended.

Then the St. Petersburg Times questioned the accuracy of information Im provided prior to his appointment to the Pinellas-Pasco Judicial Nominating Commission. The newspaper also raised questions about the authenticity of the trial experience Im says he gained in private practice and then as a traffic magistrate.

In the Greer-Govan race, Greer supporters considered Govanis campaign a challenge to the rulings the judge has made over the years in the Terri Schindler-Schiavo guardianship case. Right-to-life groups have publicly criticized Greeris decision to order the womanis feeding tube removed.

Greer, who earned 65% of the vote to Govanis 35%, doesnit consider the victory a vindication of his rulings in the Schiavo case or any other decision he has made as a judge. This was his first political challenge since 1984.

iNo, (vindication is) not the word I would use,i Greer says. iThereis just a tremendous sense of relief, gratitude and humility. The support was just incredible. It was broad-based, and the voters ratified that support.i

The support included a number of his judicial peers who offered moral support to his campaign. Many of them, including judges Crockett and Dee Ann Farnell, Thomas McGrady, Walt Logan and Jack St. Arnold, attended his campaign party at Tio Pepeis on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. Few supporters showed up for Govanis party at the Belleview Biltmore Country Club.

Still, Greer would not specifically attribute that support to the negative public opinion about his rulings in the Schiavo case.

iI think a lot came forward because they sensed the whole judiciary was somehow being subjected to an attack on our independence,i Greer offered as an explanation for that support.

Greer took this campaign challenge seriously. He raised about $154,000. Primary night, he says didnit relax until the county elections office tabulated about 60% of the results.

iWhen a CPA friend told me it was mathematically impossible for me to lose, thatis when I got a big grin on my face. The air sure smells a lot sweeter. Yeah, it does.i


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