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Young judge wins one race; another undecided

John Renke III scores an upset over Declan Mansfield. Linda Babb and George H. Brown face a runoff in November.

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 12, 2002

Tuesday's elections catapulted a young and virtually unknown New Port Richey lawyer to a seat on the Pasco-Pinellas circuit court bench and produced a runoff in another judicial race.

John Renke III, a civil attorney best known as the son of a former Republican state legislator, scored an upset over Declan Mansfield, a respected west Pasco criminal defense lawyer. Renke prevailed by a margin of 52.6 percent to 47.4 percent.

At 33, Renke becomes the youngest circuit judge in Florida. He replaces retiring Judge Joseph Donahey Jr. in the Group 25 seat, historically based in New Port Richey.

Round two now begins for candidates seeking the Circuit Judge Group 26 seat held by Maynard Swanson, who is retiring from the bench.

With none of the three candidates garnering more than 50 percent of the votes, the leading vote-getters -- Dade City prosecutor Linda Babb and Pinellas civil attorney George H. Brown -- head to a runoff election in November. On Tuesday, Babb, 46, collected 38.4 percent of the votes. Brown, 44, had 31.3 percent, bumping St. Petersburg lawyer Sarah Chaves, who had 30.3 percent.

The race between Renke and Mansfield was a study in contrasts.

Mansfield, 51, was the darling of the local legal community. He made a name for himself as a trial lawyer at the Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney's Office, leaving in 1991 to start a criminal defense and personal injury practice. Twice his name has been sent up to the governor as a finalist for circuit judge openings. Last year, according to his financial disclosure records, Mansfield earned $236,000 from his law practice. He had the endorsements of the area's two major newspapers.

Renke is an unfamiliar face around area courthouses. A lawyer for seven years, he has worked in his father's firm since he became a member of the Bar. He made $53,000 from his law practice last year, according to his financial disclosure forms.

Renke's victory shocked courthouse regulars. But the result did not surprise Renke, who ignored the legal establishment in his campaign.

"I took a grass-roots approach," he said. "I can't imagine people working much harder than we did."

Renke said he focused most of his efforts on Pinellas County "because we had to go where the votes are." He split the Pasco vote with Mansfield but won Pinellas by nearly 10,000 votes.

Many voters likely recognized the name John Renke on their ballots. The candidate's father, John Renke II, is a former state representative and now the elected Republican committeeman in Pasco.

The elder Renke said he did not use his influence in the GOP to sway a nonpartisan race.

Nonetheless, the race was not without politics. Bill Bunting, a GOP leader in Pasco and friend of the Renke family, said Republican organizers "worked very hard to turn out the vote."

"We wanted to make sure John Renke was elected," Bunting said. "We worked really hard in Pinellas. We worked it like crazy."

On Wednesday, a disappointed Mansfield said the close vote "showed a tremendous amount of support for my experience and my work in the community."

Also Wednesday, Babb and Brown said they liked their chances in the November runoff for the Group 26 seat, historically based in Dade City.

Babb topped Brown by 7,689 votes in Pasco County -- her home turf -- and by 5,847 in Pinellas.

Both candidates expressed confidence that they will pick up votes that went to Chaves, who finished 1,802 votes behind Brown.

Brown, a former police officer who has been a civil attorney since 1988, said he hoped Pinellas voters who preferred Chaves now will turn their support his way.

Babb, a prosecutor for 14 years, said she and Chaves might have split the women's vote Tuesday. She predicted a strong showing in November.

Chaves said she would support Babb in November.

Three other Pasco-Pinellas circuit judge races were decided Tuesday.

Circuit Judge Wayne Cobb was re-elected to the Group 8 seat by a margin of 64 percent to 36 percent over Pinellas assistant public defender Chris Yeazell.

Linda Allan, a St. Petersburg civil attorney, won the Group 41 seat over fellow Pinellas lawyers William L. Vinson and M. Malinda Ottinger. Allan won 54.6 percent of the vote to avoid a November runoff.

In Group 28, Dunedin civil lawyer Jack St. Arnold defeated Robert "Bo" Michael by 54 percent to 46 percent.

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