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Defeat became blessing for judge

An opponent's campaign flier tainted her first bid for a judgeship in 1994, but her career since has led to even greater accomplishments.

By DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2002


An opponent's campaign flier tainted her first bid for a judgeship in 1994, but her career since has led to even greater accomplishments.

TAMPA -- As the small crowd at her November 1994 campaign party dwindled away, the results began to sink in.

Only four months after being appointed to the bench, County Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell was going to lose her first election.

She would lose by 1 percentage point, and she would lose in an ugly way. In the closing days of the campaign, her opponent sent out a flier that included his photo and a photo of Honeywell, who is black.

"What should you look for in a county court judge?" the flier asked. Some said the message was an appeal to voters who couldn't stomach the idea of an African-American judge.

Around 11 p.m. the night of the election, Honeywell went home and called her mother.

"Charlene," her mother, who is Baptist, said. "My God doesn't make mistakes. When God closes one door, he opens another."

Nearly eight years later, Honeywell finds herself back on the bench, facing another November election. In some ways, her defeat became a blessing, a catalyst that catapulted her career and put her back on the bench in a stronger position.

After losing, she became the first African-American partner at Hill, Ward & Henderson, one of the most prestigious law firms in Tampa. She handled complex cases she wouldn't have seen as a county judge. In October 2000, Gov. Jeb Bush appointed her a circuit judge -- elevating her beyond the county judge post she originally sought.

Honeywell, 44, doesn't fit into stereotypes. She has been appointed to the bench by both Democratic and Republican governors. She has worked as a public defender for the poor and as a tough corporate lawyer.

And in a year filled with scandal at the county courthouse, Honeywell is one of the judges the public never hears about -- for all the right reasons.

Her silver Mercedes is often one of the last cars to leave the judges' parking lot at the end of the day. In court she is formal and proper, so much so that lawyers have been overhead remarking that she is really serious, more like a federal judge than a folksy state court judge.

She doesn't get involved in courthouse politics or cliques. Outside work, Honeywell spends her spare time with her husband, a Tampa police officer, and her two children, a son, 8, and a daughter, 5. Her best friend, even today, is her mother, she says.

"(Honeywell) is a person we all turn to when we want a job done and we want the job done well," attorney Ben Hill said at her swearing-in ceremony.

Born near Pompano Beach in 1957, Honeywell was an only child raised by her mother, a teacher. Her mother was a strict disciplinarian, and Honeywell's early life centered on school and Mount Calvary Baptist Church.

In middle school, Honeywell was bused to a previously all-white school to force integration. The experience shaped her later views on the law. She remembers the constant fights in school. She also recalls that her black friends resisted integration as much as the white students.

But Honeywell fit right in, joining clubs, studying hard and making friends. She was named Miss Blue and Gold and dated the quarterback of the football team, who was white.

When she ran for homecoming queen in 12th grade, a group of black students organized a protest. The kids thought Honeywell wasn't "black enough."

"I was hurt," Honeywell said.

But she won the vote and was crowned queen anyway.

"No one walked out when they announced it," she said.

After graduation, she chose Howard University, a historically black school in Washington, D.C. The experience was totally different from high school. Washington is a predominantly black city and the campus buzzed with talk of black pride.

"I had not been exposed to an affluent black neighborhood," Honeywell said. "I think it helped me develop an appreciation for African-American culture in this country, and it helped me develop my roots."

She wanted to attend Georgetown's law school, but she also knew she wanted to become a judge in her home state. She was ambitious enough to figure out how lawyers got appointed.

"If I wanted to be able to be a judge, I had to be a Gator," Honeywell said.

She didn't like Gainesville, the north Florida college town dominated by the University of Florida. In her law school class, many of the black students stuck together. Older black students advised first-year students to stay away from certain professors.

"At Howard, there was not the worry about a professor not giving you a grade that you were entitled to," Honeywell said.

At UF, "I was back in the real world again," she said.

She did well, graduating in 1981 with honors in legal research, writing and appellate advocacy.

After working five years as a public defender and seven years as an assistant city attorney in Tampa, Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed her county judge in July 1994. She had just four months to close her practice, start work as judge and campaign. Attorney Frank Gomez, who had run for the bench before, already had declared for the seat.

When he beat her, "I was devastated," Honeywell said. "I did not expect to lose."

She declined to comment on Gomez's campaign flier, saying he is a colleague now. But others, including an African-American lawyers bar association, denounced the flier as racist and sexist.

Gomez's supporters called the 42,000 pieces of mail with Honeywell's picture a standard comparison piece that had nothing to do with race. Honeywell's photo was attractive and there was nothing derogatory in the mailing, they said. It simply contrasted the two candidates' backgrounds.

The morning after Honeywell's defeat, she got a call from Martin Garcia, a partner at Hill, Ward & Henderson. Garcia had battled Honeywell in court before.

"I thought, boy we sure could use a lawyer like that in our law firm," Garcia said.

The firm hired Honeywell. Two years later, she made partner.

"Not everyone does that," said attorney Jeanne Tate, who worked with Honeywell. "We entrusted a number of matters to her of great significance. She is just a good, honest person that you can trust to do the right thing."

Honeywell now cites the complex cases she handled at the firm as the most rewarding work of her career. None could be considered helpful to liberal causes.

In federal court, Honeywell defended the Tampa Police Department against charges of police brutality in a civil rights lawsuit. She also defended the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in the first smoker's lawsuit to go to trial in Hillsborough.

"She is a very tough-minded lawyer," said attorney Howard Acosta, who represented the smoker against the tobacco giant. "In probably the most aggressively defended case I can think of, she carried the torch."

Honeywell also served on the federal judicial nominating commission, a prestigious group that helps appoint federal judges and prosecutors.

In early 1999, after she watched Peggy Quince get sworn in as the first African-American female justice of the Florida Supreme Court, Honeywell raced home. She worked all weekend to beat the deadline to file an application for an opening on the circuit bench. In October 2000, Gov. Jeb Bush made Honeywell, a registered Democrat, a judge again.

"I am not going to say the quest to become a judge has been easy, because it hasn't," Honeywell said at her investiture ceremony in February 2001.

She paused, then told the packed audience that she promised herself she wouldn't cry. But moments later, as she spoke about her family and recalled losing the '94 election, tears rolled down her cheek.

-- David Karp can be reached at (813) 226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com.

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