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GOP insider gets a surprise

A candidate for county judge, the wife of a former party chairman, fails to win the endorsement of the county GOP.

Published August 20, 2006

LARGO - To an outsider, it would seem county judge candidate Susan Bedinghaus should easily have won an endorsement from the Pinellas Republican Party.

Bedinghaus' husband is the past chairman and current state committeeman of the county GOP. And she has the support of big-time Republicans like Gov. Jeb Bush and Attorney General Charlie Crist.

At the Republican executive committee meeting Monday night, Bedinghaus was cheered. Her opponent, a registered independent named Nat Kidder, received only a polite smattering of applause.

But minutes later, a motion to support Bedinghaus failed. The vote wasn't close to the two-thirds needed to endorse her. In fact, it wasn't even a majority.

So how could such a loyal Republican insider fail to gain the endorsement of the local party that knows her best?

First, Bedinghaus doesn't have the experience or credentials of most judicial candidates. She hasn't held a steady full-time job in more than four years. She has a private practice, but only had one client last year. She previously worked for the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, where she developed a reputation that could be described as unremarkable at best.

At 33, she would become the youngest judge in the state.

Second, her husband, Paul Bedinghaus, apparently has made enemies within the party. GOP chairman Tony DiMatteo declined to go into detail, but said: "Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt."

"I was somewhat shocked," DiMatteo said of the vote. "As far as politics go, she's our girl. ... (but) she can't be disconnected from her husband."

Kidder seemed the most surprised.

"I was stunned and amazed," he said. "You go into these things assuming the Republican committee is going to endorse the Republican candidate. On the face of it, I think the qualifications issue is the biggest distinguishing point between us."

A day after the vote, Susan Bedinghaus said she didn't want the party's endorsement in the first place. "I have removed myself completely from any partisan activities," she said.

Judicial races are nonpartisan, and candidates are restricted in how they can court support from political parties.

Throughout her career, however, Susan Bedinghaus and her husband have been Republican insiders.

Bush appointed Susan Bedinghaus to the Judicial Nominating Commission when she was only four years out of law school. She wrote in her application that she was "committed to selecting persons who would best represent Governor Bush's ideals and principles."

The commission screens candidates who apply for open judgeships and recommends finalists to the governor, who makes the final choice. Because the commission wields a great deal of power, many lawyers believed Bedinghaus got the spot because of her husband's political connections, not because of her record as a lawyer.

Bedinghaus graduated from law school in 1997 and went to work for the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, then flunked the Florida bar exam. She said she failed because she was working too hard. Bedinghaus passed the second time.

She eventually moved up to prosecuting felonies, but records from the State Attorney's Office show Bedinghaus missed a lot of work either because of sickness or because of her obligations to the Judicial Nominating Commission.

"There was a lot of sick days and a lot of absences," said Dave Tobiassen, a prosecutor supervisor while Bedinghaus worked at the office. "As far as a team player, I didn't get that impression. Absenteeism was an issue. A lot of people in her division were not happy."

Records from the State Attorney's Office show Bedinghaus tried only one felony trial by herself, which she lost, and only about a dozen misdemeanor trials, most of which she also lost.

St. Petersburg defense lawyer Frank Louderback said he wasn't impressed with Bedinghaus.

"Based on my experience with Ms. Bedinghaus during her tenure at the State Attorney's Office, I don't feel that she's qualified to be a county judge," Louderback said. "I just wasn't very impressed with her temperament, nor her lawyering skills."

She stayed at the prosecutor's office about five years before leaving in 2002.

Bedinghaus eventually became chairwoman of the Judicial Nominating Commission. She stunned some candidates by asking questions that seemed steeped in politics.

Andy Steingold applied for an open judgeship and said Bedinghaus asked him what U.S. Supreme Court justice he would remove from the bench if he could and why.

"I thought it was politically motivated to say the least," Steingold said of the question.

Bedinghaus said this week the question was meant to make the candidate "take us through an analytical discussion."

Tobiassen said he would have run for judge had someone else not stepped forward. Tobiassen is supporting Kidder, who he has faced off with in court.

"I just didn't want to see her walk into a judicial seat because of her political clout," Tobiassen said.

State Attorney Bernie McCabe is publicly supporting Bedinghaus, though his advocacy seems lukewarm.

"I guess if I had to give a reason it would be that she worked for me," said McCabe, a Republican. When asked by the St. Petersburg Times if politics influenced his decision to support Bedinghaus, McCabe said: "Not necessarily."

McCabe acknowledged that he hadn't compared the credentials or experience of Bedinghaus and Kidder. He acknowledged not even knowing for whom he would vote.

"I don't know that I'm going to vote for her," McCabe said. "That's none of your business."

Kidder, 51, is an ex-Marine who has been a lawyer for 19 years. He began his career as a prosecutor under the late Jimmy Russell and ascended into the felony division, where he tried all kinds of cases, including murder. He is now in private practice and has been involved in more than 60 jury trials in his career.

Well-known defense lawyer Jay Hebert said he knows and respects both candidates, but decided to support Bedinghaus before he knew Kidder was entering the race.

"I think Mr. Kidder's resume is an example of what judges should have on their resume," said Hebert, who is involved in the Republican Party. "I think Ms. Bedinghaus has less experience and is equally capable, and I endorsed her before knowing that Mr. Kidder was entering the race."

After leaving the State Attorney's Office in 2002, Bedinghaus opened her private practice. She said she generally just helps personal friends with legal issues.

Bedinghaus began working part time in 2003 for state Attorney General Charlie Crist in the St. Petersburg child support enforcement division. Last year, her income was $20,825.

An election to the bench would increase her income more than six-fold.

Lawyers who support Bedinghaus said they understand she is not as experienced as Kidder, so they support her for other reasons, whether it be her experience on the Judicial Nominating Commission or what they describe as a pleasant demeanor. They also acknowledge her political connections.

"It's not about credentials and trial work all the time as much as the public might expect," said lawyer Dyril Flanagan, who is supporting Bedinghaus. "Everybody knows that she's connected ... and you take advantage of what's around you. That's human nature."

But St. Petersburg's Pat Doherty, a respected local lawyer for 33 years, said experience is too important to discount for a judicial position.

"You have the choice between the professional and a well-meaning amateur," said Doherty. "And, um, gee, this is kind of a no-brainer. Why is anybody giving this any thought? And the answer, I guess, is politics. We have to rely on the voters to know the real thing when they see it."

[Last modified August 20, 2006, 00:30:17]

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