Having the right last name goes a long way, too. It’s no secret that ethnic groups are more inclined to vote for their own, particularly when they know little about the candidates and the issues, he said.
“If your name is Garcia or Fernandez, you’ve got a pretty good shot,” Schwartz said, referring to races in Miami-Dade County. Hyphenated multiethnic names are even better.
HAVING THE EDGE
But in judicial races, there’s no power greater than incumbency.
Out of the 358 possible county or circuit court races statewide this election cycle, only 72 will be contested. That means a full 80 percent of the Judicial Class of 2012 will take the bench without opposition. Of the 12 contested circuit and county judicial races in Miami-Dade County this year, only three involve challenged incumbents.
Joe Davis, a judge in Miami-Dade’s County Court, is running unopposed — due in no small part to the $208,000 his campaign had raised through March. Of that sum, $150,000 came from Davis’ personal fortune. He loaned himself that money, presumably to both show his supporters he was committed, and to scare off any would-be challengers.
Judges who earn their robes in an election reach the bench owing a debt of gratitude to the very attorneys who will appear before them in court. Lawyers and firms are by far the biggest donors to judicial campaigns.
It takes far fewer votes to win these countywide races than one would think. In 2010, the last judicial election, just 215,000 of the Miami-Dade’s 1.2 million registered voters went the polls. Of that number, roughly 40,000 people didn’t bother to cast a vote for judges, meaning less than 15 percent of the electorate participated in the judicial election.
“The electorate doesn’t want to do the research in judicial races, so people don’t vote for judges,” Salokar said. “It’s the same reason they don’t vote for constitutional amendments. They don’t know who or what they’re voting for.”
In most cases, it takes a controversial or highly publicized ruling for a sitting judge to lose a spot on the bench.
Former Miami-Dade circuit judge Joe Durant, now deceased, was tagged with the nickname “Let ’Em Go Joe” after handing out some controversial sentences, including a one-year stretch for a pair of former Dolphins after they tried to sell undercover cops a pound of cocaine in 1977. He got beat.
Susan Lebow, a circuit judge in Broward, got caught in the same trap. She was derided as “Let ’Em Go Lebow” after overturning a manslaughter conviction against former University of Miami football star Brian Blades. Lebow drew a challenger in 2010, but won reelection convincingly.
By and large, contested races pit first-timer against first-timer.
That was the case in the 2010 Miami-Dade judicial race between Monica Gordo and Robert Kuntz. Gordo, then an assistant state attorney, trounced her opponent by 30 points, despite Kuntz, a commercial litigant, spending the better part of two years on the campaign trail.
Kuntz’s campaign strategy was to meet with as many groups and participate in as many candidate forums as possible. He claims to have put 45,000 miles on his truck and would often make have two or three appearances a night, traveling to all corners of the county.
And unlike many of his peers, Kuntz would talk about his personal political beliefs — after assuring his audience that he would always apply the laws that existed, regardless of his opinion of them.
“I tried to be extremely forthcoming,” said Kuntz, who spent every dime of the $81,000 he raised in 2010. “It’s easier to tell the truth all the time.”
Katie McHugh, squaring off against County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman for a judicial seat in Broward, takes a more conservative tack. Her answer to any potentially divisive question is the same: The legislature is elected to make laws, and judges are elected uphold and follow them.