Nineteen years is a long time to forge allies and create enemies — and as Miami-Dade’s state attorney since 1993, Katherine Fernández Rundle has done both.
When Fernández Rundle instituted a diversion program last year for first-time drunken drivers, defense lawyers howled because of the potential to cut into business.
Miami-Dade’s police union has castigated her for appearing soft on crime, then blasted her for arresting cops.
In campaigns past, Fernández Rundle battled criticism that she was weak on public corruption. Her office in recent years has landed some high-profile corruption arrests — but the failed prosecution of a Miami city commissioner has become a rallying point for her Democratic challenger, Rod Vereen, in the Aug. 14 primary election.
Such is the duality of the role of Miami-Dade’s top law officer, an elected office bound to political partisanship by the state’s constitution but adversarial by the nature of the power to put people behind bars.
“Fifty percent of the time I’m making someone unhappy and that’s OK. If we’re pleasing everybody, then we’re not doing our jobs,” Fernández Rundle said in a recent interview. “Our role is very well defined. By its nature, it’s not ribbon-cutting and going to groundbreaking events.”
Criticism and success is nothing new for Fernández Rundle, 62. Her story is familiar for voters.
Her father was Carlos Benito Fernandez, the first Hispanic judge in Miami-Dade. She worked her way up through the ranks of the office of State Attorney Janet Reno, creating the state’s first domestic crimes prosecution unit in 1986.
In 1993, when Reno became attorney general in the Clinton administration, Fernández Rundle was appointed to succeed her. In 2000 and 2004 she won reelection against a candidate supported by the Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association, her longtime nemesis.
No candidate opposed her in 2008, an emotional “blessing” she says, because campaign season came soon after her sister and mother died of cancer. Fernández Rundle, who is divorced with two adult sons, has so far raised $533,005 in donations.
Certainly, Fernández Rundle — whose reported net worth is $1.6 million — could have moved on. She flirted with running for other offices, including lieutenant governor and most recently Miami-Dade mayor.
But she insists her place is leading the 1,200-employee office with a budget of $77 million, which, in recent years, has been hit with a 17 percent cut in salaries.
Her accolades over 19 years have been many: numerous awards for service, providing services for crime victims, teaching former defendants how to seal and expunge their records, while targeting insurance fraud, cyber crimes, gangs and human trafficking. She also has taken a hard line against Florida’s controversial self-defense law, serving on a governor’s task force aimed at examining the statute.
“Kathy and her prosecutors have been very supportive of my troops as we have worked on drug, gang, gambling and human trafficking cases,” said Miami-Dade Police Maj. Charles Nanney, who headed the narcotics unit and now oversees robbery cases. “I think the streets are far safer because of the relationship we have built in locking up criminals.”
Some Miami defense lawyers offer up their support, saying her office is more reasonable than counterparts in Broward or Monroe, where prosecutors are less willing to drop a weak case or accept plea deals.
“I think her office as a whole handles itself in a fair manner. You can quibble with individual cases, but at least I know there are prosecutors who I can talk to,” said defense lawyer David S. Markus. “I think the problems in the state attorney’s office are caused by a lack of funding, not by a lack of leadership.”
The last couple of years, however, have been rocky for Fernández Rundle.
She engaged in a public spat with former Miami Police Chief Miguel Exposito over prosecutorial delays in finishing investigations into police-involved shootings.
Exposito later accused her of playing favorites in dropping a public corruption case against the grandson of black activist Georgia Ayers — who referred the case to prosecutors in the first place. Rundle shot back that the cops proceeded despite warnings that there wasn’t enough evidence.
“The problem I have with her is that she is very aggressive against certain politicians or government workers, yet with others she takes the soft approach. She gives you all the reasons in the world to not go after them,” said Exposito, whose stormy tenure ended in September after public battles with his own boss. “I think she needs to go.”
Most notably, last year a jury acquitted Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones in a bribery case, and another grand theft case was dropped months later. Spence-Jones has said she plans to sue Fernández Rundle for “prosecutorial and investigatory misconduct.”
Spence-Jones is now actively supporting Vereen, who says the state attorney’s office engages in “political prosecutions.” He has also ripped prosecutors for not charging U.S. Rep. David Rivera, a Republican, on allegations of financial misconduct.
His campaign is hoping Fernández Rundle is vulnerable with black voters, a bloc that has traditionally backed her.
“Kathy, she’s been OK, but not good enough,” said Miami Rev. Jerome Starling, who is supporting Vereen. “I think her ties to the African-American community have gotten weaker.”
Influential local black leaders such as Carrie Meek, lawyer H.T. Smith and Ayers are backing Fernández Rundle. Rev. Carl Johnson, of the 93rd Street Baptist Church, admits that the troubled Spence-Jones prosecution may push some black voters away, but not him.
“I’m unashamedly supporting Kathy,” Johnson said. “She punishes the punitive in heart who have no regard for the law, but she also gives mercy that is corrective in nature.”
Said Fernández Rundle : “I believe the African-American and Haitian and Caribbean community know who we are as an office and what we stand for and they appreciate the hard work we do for them. I don’t think they’re going to be fooled by a lot of loud, noisy people who may have vendettas against the office.”