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    Incumbent Cobb and lawyer Allan hold their leads

    By CHASE SQUIRES and CARY DAVIS
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 11, 2002

    Jack St. Arnold and Linda Allan, two Pinellas civil attorneys, appeared headed to victory Tuesday night in the race for Pinellas-Pasco circuit judgeships.

    They joined Circuit Judge Wayne Cobb, who was headed to a convincing victory, and 33-year-old New Port Richey civil attorney John Renke III, who appeared on his way to an upset over Declan Mansfield, a former prosecutor and respected Pasco criminal defense and personal injury lawyer.

    It was chaos in a fifth judicial race, where Linda Babb, George H. Brown and Sarah Chaves were locked in a tight battle for the Group 26 seat, traditionally based in Dade City.

    In the race for Group 41, a new seat created by the Legislature to deal with growing caseloads in Pinellas, Allan held a sizable lead over M. Malinda Ottinger and William L. Vinson. With three-fourths of the precincts reporting, Allan, 47, had more than half of the vote. If that trend holds, she will avoid a runoff. Vinson was next with nearly one-third of the vote.

    In the race for the Group 28 Pinellas-Pasco judicial seat, St. Arnold, 50, held a comfortable lead over personal injury lawyer Robert "Bo" Michael in the race to replace the longest-serving circuit judge in Florida, the retiring Judge David Seth Walker. St. Arnold, who specializes in estate planning, probate and real estate law, is a former Dunedin city commissioner.

    In Group 25, a seat historically based in New Port Richey, Renke was holding on to a narrow lead over Mansfield with over four-fifths of the precincts reporting.

    Though Renke has just seven years experience as a lawyer, he had name recognition on his side. His father, John Renke II, is a former Republican state representative who still wields power. The elder Renke is the elected Republican state committeeman in Pasco.

    Mansfield and Renke traded barbs in the closing weeks of the election. Mansfield questioned whether Renke had enough experience to be a judge. Renke sent out a mailer drawing voters' attention to Mansfield's criminal defense work.

    "I'm very pleased," Renke said late Tuesday night. "It looks like my work in Pinellas paid off."

    Cobb, 66, of Dade City had a comfortable lead over his first challenger since he was appointed to the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Group 8 bench, returning to the seat he has held since he was appointed in 1977.

    He took a strong early lead Tuesday over political newcomer Christopher Earl Yeazell, 40, of St. Petersburg, who has been an assistant public defender in the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit since becoming an attorney in 1989.

    Cobb said Tuesday night that he wasn't sure what to expect in the race but he appreciated support he found, especially in eastern Pasco County. He said he never heard any negative feedback in the race, but worried that might not be an indicator.

    "People don't normally say negative things to a sitting judge," Cobb said with a laugh. "You don't curse the alligator until you get across the river."

    A tight contest shaped up in the three-way bid to replace retiring Circuit Judge Maynard Swanson for the Group 26 seat. Two of the three candidates appeared headed for a November runoff.

    Dade City prosecutor Babb took a lead with the early Pasco County returns, with Pinellas County attorneys Brown and Chaves vying for the second spot on the November ballot.

    Babb, 46, is a former probation officer who has been a prosecutor in the State Attorney's Office for 14 years, first in Pinellas County, then moving to the Dade City office in 1994.

    Brown, 44, has been campaigning for the seat since 2000 and said being a judge has been alongtime goal of his, going back to his tenure as an Ocala police officer before he became an attorney.

    Chaves, 52, is making her second bid for a judgeship and touted her specialization in family law as a plus.

    Circuit judges are elected on a nonpartisan basis for a six-year term.

    They preside over criminal and civil cases in Pinellas and Pasco counties. They might handle felonies, family law, juvenile cases and lawsuits alleging damages in excess of $15,000. As of Oct. 1, the job pays $133,250 a year.

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