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Judicial races become costly

Candidates for the bench may spend substantial amounts of money for recognition.

By COLLEEN JENKINS
Published October 29, 2006


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TAMPA — They can’t name their political party or share personal opinions on current controversies.So where does that leave judicial candidates?

Struggling to get noticed in a sea of candidates and often shelling out big bucks to do so.

With a final spending push still to come in the week before the election, Hillsborough judicial candidates have spent an average of about $94,000 to introduce themselves to voters. Candidates for circuit judgeships in Pinellas and Pasco have spent an average of about $66,000.

More staggering are the personal funds some candidates have poured into their campaign coffers as of mid October, according to the most recent campaign finance reports.

Tampa lawyer Kimberly Fernandez loaned herself $285,000 and spent $184,684; Edward L. Scott, an Ocala attorney running in the circuit that includes Hernando and Citrus counties, gave himself $211,000 and spent $235,664.

It’s no Miami, where a candidate loaned her campaign $330,000 only to lose in the primary, but the pricey contests have some people questioning whether things have gotten out of hand for nonpartisan races in Tampa Bay.

“I certainly don’t believe it makes logical economic sense to spend three years’ salary to try to get a job that lasts for six years,” said Paul Jeske, Fernandez’s opponent, who loaned himself $200,000 but has spent $86,746.

Like buying a house or filling a gas tank, it has gotten more expensive to run for judge in the past decade. Consider this: Winners of the 1996 races in Hillsborough spent on average a mere $52,947. By 2004, the average expenditures soared to $144,040, a 172 percent increase.

Current candidates say most of the costs are unavoidable. The creation of 55 new judgeships in Florida this year resulted in more contested races. Six races in Pinellas-Pasco and Hillsborough had three or four candidates, making name recognition harder to achieve.

Each of those races required runoffs in the general election and another round of fundraising for the primary winners. Judicial candidates, who generally rely on the legal community for donations, had to use their own funds when those contributors dried up.

“A lot of people were maxed out,” said Samantha Ward, a career public defender in Tampa who loaned her campaign $81,500. “A lot of people who gave once didn’t want to give again or were friends with two people in a race.”

Her opponent, Emily Peacock, cites the rise in the number of voters who requested absentee ballots as another source of the increase in expenditures. Campaigns try to target these likely voters but, with the number of absentee voters nearly doubling since the 2002 election, reaching them with direct mail isn’t feasible for everyone.

“I would have liked to send a card to all absentee voters, but it’s cost prohibitive,” said Peacock, an attorney in private practice who has spent $43,972, about 2 1/2 times less than Ward.

Mailers and postage make up the bulk of campaign expenditures, according to state Division of Elections records. In a five-county circuit like the one Brooksville attorney Daniel B. Merritt Jr. is running in, reaching voters with the most basic information runs up a large bill.

“I knew that it was going to cost some money,” said Merritt, who has spent about $126,000, “but frankly I didn’t think it would get into the kind of numbers that it has done.”

Three candidates in Hillsborough — Fernandez and opponents Gary Dolgin and Ashley Moody — have spent tens of thousands on TV commercials.

Back in 1988, incumbent Hillsborough county judge James Dominguez also ran TV ads about his candidacy. Debra Behnke beat him anyway, despite spending only $35,000.

Now a circuit judge, she thinks judicial races are so costly because “nobody knows what really works.” Thousands of signs, mailers and billboards later, voters still know little about the judicial candidates.

“I think they’re just throwing money at whatever,” she said.

Statistics back her up. In Hillsborough, 60 percent of the winners in the contested circuit races between 1996 and 2004 also were the biggest spenders. On the flip side, attorney Carlos Pazos outspent his two opponents at $186,500 but finished last in the 2002 primary.

Some candidates just acknowledge they won’t be able to keep up. Pat Siracusa, a veteran prosecutor in Pinellas, managed to raise $79,767 of the $94,470 he has spent. He nixed TV commercials as too expensive but believes he would have spent much more if not for endorsements from newspapers and other organizations.

Most of his energy is directed to the campaign trail, where he tries to get voters to care about who they elect as judges.

“You have to spend money to be competitive,” Siracusa said. “But you don’t have to spend money to win.”

Times staff writer Carrie Weimar contributed to this story. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or cjenkins@sptimes.com.

[Last modified October 29, 2006, 23:45:16]


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