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Hillsborough judges fight off challengers; runoffs likely in other races

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 11, 2002

TAMPA -- The only two Hillsborough judges to draw opposition appeared headed toward easy victories early Wednesday..

With 91 percent of precincts counted, county Judge Eric Myers held a commanding lead over his opponent, Tampa lawyer Gary Dolgin, in the race for Hillsborough County Judge Group 7.

Myers held a victory party for his campaign workers at Orange Blossom Cosmetology Association Inc. on 34th Street.

"I ran this race touting my qualifications, my performance on the bench and my community service," Myers said. "It appears that's what the voters are looking at."

Meanwhile, County judge Cheryl Thomas held a significant lead over challenger Anthony Arena in the race for Hillsborough County Judge Group 2.

Thomas was confident she would hold her lead.

"I'm assuming the voters will support an incumbent who has an excellent record," Thomas said.

Of 26 circuit and county judges up for re-election this year, Thomas and Myers -- both African American -- were the only two incumbent Hillsborough County judges to draw challengers this election.

Race became an issue early in the campaign between Thomas and Arena. Thomas placed a political ad with her photograph in the Florida Sentinel Bulletin, Tampa's black community newspaper, which read "Let's support our very own on September 10th." Arena, who is white, said he interpreted the Sentinel ad as evidence of Thomas "campaigning along racial lines."

But Thomas said her opponent misread the ad and that she meant "our own" to signify that she is a Tampa native.

In response to the Florida Sentinel Bulletin's support of Thomas, La Gaceta newspaper threw its weight behind Arena, who is Latin.

An editorial in its Aug. 30 edition read: "La Gaceta endorses one of our own, Latin candidate for county judge Group 2, Anthony Arena."

The Myers versus Dolgin race was less controversial.

Myers, 46, is a county judge who handles cases in civil and traffic court. He also has a circuit judge assignment in domestic violence court.

As a prosecutor who spent 18 years at the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, Myers has been scrutinized for his role in the botched investigation of Steven and Marlene Aisenberg, whose daughter Sabrina disappeared in November 1997.

Myers was the state prosecutor who authorized detectives to place a wire tap in the couple's home. He admits making some mistakes in that case but insists it is not a factor in his performance as a judge.

But Dolgin said the Aisenberg case was a big factor in his decision to run against Myers.

"Our judges should not be making headlines," Dolgin said.

Dolgin, 38, is a longtime south Tampa resident with a family law practice in downtown Tampa. In his campaign he stressed his experience as a private lawyer and his certification as a specialist in marital and family law, which he said makes him most qualified to decide domestic violence cases and see the law from all angles.

Circuit judges

Of nine lawyers vying for three Hillsborough circuit judge seats, the leading vote-getters early Wednesday were Kevin Carey in Group 7, Martha Cook in Group 30, and Monica Sierra in Group 37.

With 91 percent of the vote counted, Carey enjoyed a strong lead over Walter H. Foster IV, a Navy vet and former prosecutor, in the race to fill the vacancy left by retiring judge Donald Evans.

Reached at a party at the Tampa Yacht Club, Carey said, "It's a wonderful feeling that the people would allow me to get where I need to go."

Carey, a partner at the Carlton Fields law firm, has been practicing locally for 19 years and has won acclaim for his pro bono work for farm workers and the indigent. The veteran commercial lawyer, 43, has been nominated for a judgeship seven times in the last two years but was never appointed by the governor.

The other two circuit judge races have more than two candidates vying for each seat. If one of the candidates receives more than 50 percent of the vote, he or she will win the job. If not, the two candidates with the highest vote totals will run off in the general election in November.

With most of the votes counted, Cook was far ahead of rivals Carlos Pazos and Ken Whalen. They are fighting to replace Circuit Judge Florence Foster, who left the bench for health reasons earlier this year.

"I think people have been very positive and very pleased with the campaign so far," said Cook, 53, while awaiting results at Beef O'Brady's downtown. "It's all been positive, and we are ready for a November (runoff) if it comes down to that."

Cook has spent the last eight years working in mediation and arbitration. Pazos is a former prosecutor and assistant public defender who has focused on family law in recent years. Whalen has a background in civil litigation, most recently representing injured railroad workers.

In the four-person race for a newly created circuit judge's seat, late results seemed to point to a November runoff between Monica Sierra and Woody Isom. Candidates Brad Souders and Ray Brooks appeared to be out of the running.

"I'm very humbled that I had so much support. I'm looking forward to winning it in November, if not tonight," said Sierra, 35, awaiting results at her Tampa law office. Sierra has been in private practice since 1993, handling real estate, business, probate and guardianship matters.

"I'm exhausted, I can hardly think," said Isom, 58, after a long day of campaigning. He was awaiting results at his Tampa home.

Isom said he was "not surprised that (Sierra) is doing well because she's the only woman in the race, and she's the first on the ballot, and she's worked very hard."

Isom is an Air Force veteran with nearly 30 years of civil trial experience, and is married to Hillsborough Circuit Judge Claudia Isom.

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