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Fairness? That depends on whose ox is getting gored

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By C. T. BOWEN, Pasco Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 15, 2002

Republican activist and Second Amendment protector Bill Bunting brought a towel by the office this week.

A crying towel, he said. Spare no expense. It's 86 percent cotton and has a couple of small worn spots (not bullet holes) near one corner. Bunting was crowing about the outcome of a judicial race and responding to an editorial suggestion that a fair campaign committee would be a good thing for Pasco County. (More on that shortly.)

Later the same morning, John Renke II and his wife came by to protest what they believe is unfair coverage of their son. They must have forgotten their candidate won. John Renke III is judge-elect in the Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Court and at age 33 will become the youngest circuit court judge in the state.

His victory over Declan Mansfield signals what could become the norm in judicial campaigns: Aggressive politicking, partisan networking and late negative advertising.

It's quite a change from the staid, scholarly like, even dull affairs of the past when candidates offered their qualifications as the only litmus test and public interest outside the Bar was minimal.

This year, we heard complaints about joint advertising, candidates endorsing each other (which is prohibited), stolen campaign signs, and an incumbent's Web site that featured his rulings on a pending criminal sex-crime case.

Dignity gave way to dirt. The Renke-Mansfield race gained the most notoriety. Similar tactics are expected to follow.

"It's scary, but absolutely. They (Renkes) set the tone," said political consultant Mary Repper whose clients included Mansfield and judicial candidate Linda Baab who is on the November ballot for Group 26. "It really set a tone that's unfortunate for a judicial campaign."

She is piqued at the late direct mail advertising from Renke that featured the family dog and included Mansfield's telephone book advertisement. Renke II defends it, saying it was intended to show Mansfield's private practice experience can't match his son's.

Oh. Other people took it to mean that defending accused drunken drivers and other suspected criminals isn't a good thing.

"I would assume that was implied," acknowledged Bunting.

Similar candor from the Renkes would be appreciated.

The late mail was only part of the strategy. Despite their pleas to the contrary, the Renke camp worked their ties to the Republican Party in this nonpartisan race. The Pasco Republican Executive Committee, of which the elder Renke is an ex officio officer, mailed its endorsements to all registered Republicans in the Pasco-Pinellas circuit.

The strategy was to play down the Republican ties in Pasco because they feared a large Democratic turnout here. The Renke campaign concentrated on the bigger voting bloc in Pinellas.

The publicity and politicking certainly spurred interest. In Pasco County, more people voted in the Renke-Mansfield race than any of the other four judicial seats, including a contest featuring longtime incumbent Judge Wayne Cobb.

Mansfield held a slight edge in Pasco, but Renke won the seat with a 10,000-vote plurality in Pinellas County.

"They ran a magnificent campaign," said state Rep. Mike Fasano. "John Renke and John Renke (III) and his family worked Pinellas County Republicans very hard."

A successful strategy. Even if they won't admit it.

* * *

Renke's literature and a piece from unsuccessful state House candidate John Legg brought the most election eve clamoring. But, Bunting and Renke both disagreed with a proposal to form a Fair Campaign Practice Board in Pasco, modeled after the citizens panel in Pinellas, which could sit in judgment of campaign tactics.

Bunting's stance is hypocritical. Just two years ago, he asked the trio of Republican sheriff candidates to sign a pledge to campaign fairly. He said he planned to give the signed documents to journalists to monitor the campaign behavior.

At the time, Bunting feared his candidate, Gil Thivener, would get smeared by former sheriff Jim Gillum.

Funny, how you worry about fairness only when your camp is vulnerable to attack.

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