BY BUDDY NEVINS
Three state senators say that the decades-long Democratic dominance of Broward Public Defender and State Attorney campaigns should end.
That’s not their goal. But that is what will happen if they pass their bill to make state attorney and public defender elections nonpartisan.
In Broward, where snow is more likely than a non-Democrat winning either courthouse job, the bill’s passage would mean Republicans and independents would finally be guaranteed a real say in who should be the Public Defender and State Attorney. Since the mid-1970s when Democratic retirees first grabbed control of the county’s politics, those races have been decided in the Democratic primary usually disenfranchising Republicans and independents.
The bill stems from last year’s bitter Jacksonville campaigns for state attorney and public defender, races that were decided in the Republican primary. Most of Jacksonville’s blacks – only roughly 4 percent are Republican — could not vote for the winner.
State Sen. Audrey Gibson, the Democrat who filed the bill, represents much of the black area of Jacksonville.
State Sen. Gary Farmer, a Democratic attorney from Fort Lauderdale, and State Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, are the two co-sponsors of the Senate measure (SB 366).
“Justice is blind and it should be nonpartisan, too,” Gibson told Jacksonville.com.
Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein agrees with Gibson that justice is blind. But that’s exactly why Finkelstein and the Florida Public Defender Association are not taking a position on the bill, he said.
“Whether you are Democratic or Republican, there should be no difference on how we represent the poor,” Finkelstein said.
Finkelstein said that Public Defender Blaise Trettis proves his point. A Republican representing Brevard and Seminole Counties, Trettis is “a Tea Party guy and he is one of the best defense lawyers I’ve ever met,” Finkelstein said.
The bill has one big problem in the GOP-led Legislature. All three of the Senate sponsors are Democrats.
Florida law only allows open primaries if the winner will face no opposition in the general election. Using a loophole in the law which allows write-in candidates to be counted as opposition, campaign consultants have frequently encouraged write-ins to run to close primaries.
This tactic benefits Republicans in GOP communities like Jacksonville, where a write-in was used last year in the public defender and state attorney races. In Broward, the strategy has been used to disenfranchise Republicans and independents.
One exception to the use of the loophole was State Attorney Mike Satz’s reelection last year. It was highly unusual that Satz nor his opponent Teresa Elizabeth Williams did not field a write-in to close the Democratic primary. Both candidates apparently believed they had strength among Republicans and independents.
Farmer did not return calls for comment, while Satz was in court prosecuting a case and could not come to the phone.