Ethnic politics, ethics issues spill over into some judicial races in Miami-Dade

08/01/2014 4:34 PM

08/01/2014 5:31 PM

The normally staid Miami-Dade judicial elections have so far hosted plenty of intriguing story lines: Miami ethnic politics, some familiar political faces and one candidate dogged by recent ethics probes.

In all, there are eight races — with four incumbent Miami-Dade County judges fighting to keep their jobs.

Circuit judges preside over cases ranging from felonies to juvenile and complex civil disputes. Two seats in county court, where judges preside over minor civil disputes and misdemeanor cases, are also in play.

In this election cycle, 32 circuit judges and seven county judges retained their seats when no one chose to run against them.

Perhaps the most high-profile open circuit contest pits former Miami-Dade School Board member Renier Diaz de la Portilla against Miami assistant city attorney Veronica Diaz.

Diaz de la Portilla, 43, hails from a prominent political family and has served stints as a member of the Miami-Dade School Board, the last ending in 2012. He also served two years as a Florida House representative between 2000 and 2002.

He touts endorsements from politicians such as Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, and former judges Israel Reyes and Joel Brown.

Diaz de la Portilla, who has so far raised over $64,000, says he wanted to become a judge after developing a passion for mediation work in recent years. “I loved it, and being a judge, I can do it every day.”

His opponent, Diaz, 36, is no stranger to politics, either.

She has served as an assistant Miami city attorney since March 2007, overseeing negotiations on complex land deals. Diaz touts endorsements from Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, ex-Mayor Manny Diaz and two sitting commissioners, Francis Suarez and Wifredo “Willy” Gort.

Diaz has raised close to $46,000. She says she wants to serve as a juvenile judge. “So many kids in our community don’t have options,” she said. “I want to be the one that says, ‘I’m going to help you. We’re going to figure out a way to keep you off the streets.’”

Diaz was in the news recently after a Miami-Dade ethics investigation concluded she steered city jobs to her fiancé’s law firm through a third party, failing to disclose her ties.

An investigation concluded “the appearance of impropriety is strong” but that no rules were broken. She dismissed the complaint as “frivolous.”

Ethics investigators are also looking at Diaz for her receipt of two free VIP tickets from the Ultra music festival, a practice the city attorney’s office said broke no laws. Diaz says she went to “monitor” the event.

Diaz de la Portilla says the probes make him the “clear” choice: “Our community cannot afford to be embarrassed,” he said.

His opponent shot back, saying: “He’s a politician. He’ll continue to run the campaign as if we’re running for governor or the Senate. I’m not going to get into dirty politics.”

Diaz de la Portilla hasn’t been free of his own ethics probes. In 2011, the schools inspector general said he violated rules and procedures when his school board office sent a mailer to Republican voters, most of them in a district in which his brother was running for the Florida Senate.

Their judicial race is not the only one filled with drama.

Rodney Smith, 39, is fighting to keep his seat from challenger Christian Carrazana, a personal injury attorney.

Smith is a former Miami Beach assistant city attorney first appointed to the county bench in 2008 and later elevated to circuit. The Liberty City-raised lawyer touts broad support among many of the top lawyers and legal organizations in Miami-Dade, is praised for his involvement in the community, and has received overwhelming support in local bar association polls.

“It’s very important you have experience on the bench. You can’t trade experience for an experiment,” Smith said.

So far, Smith has raised over $114,000 in campaign contributions, while his opponent has only raised just over $14,000.

Carrazana, 41, has been a lawyer since 1999. Smith supporters say Carrazana, a Cuban American, targeted the well-respected black incumbent hoping to win on the appeal of a Spanish surname in this heavily Hispanic electorate.

“He’s hoping to slide by on his name,” said Smith’s campaign manager, attorney Larry Handfield. “It’s unfair to the citizens of Miami-Dade County.”

Carrazana denies playing ethnics politics. Instead, he says he is targeting Smith because he disagrees with Smith rulings over the years favoring insurance companies. Smith was once employed by campaign supporter United Automobile Insurance Company; the company’s executive operations manager also created a political action committee, Citizens for Judicial Fairness, to support the judge.

“I believe I am the best qualified candidate,” Carrazana said.

Replied Smith: “I don’t favor any side. If the law is on your side, the law is on your side.”

The campaign saw an early twist when Carrazana’s longtime firm, Panter, Panter & Sampedro, fired him in May because he filed to run against Smith, a story first reported by Miami’s Justice Building Blog.

“The partners also said that if I won the election, I would be blackballed by other members of the judiciary,” Carrazana said.

The firm had vowed to back Smith, and Carrazana’s decision prompted a “bunch of calls” from upset people in the legal community, said partner Brett Panter.

“It’s a very sad thing. I did not want to do it,” Panter said in an interview. “Our word and our bond is very important in this community. I gave Judge Smith my word.”

Carrazana also claims Handfield called him after he filed to run, promising him “the African-American vote” if he switched to an open seat. Handfield calls that an “absolute lie,” saying he called Carrazana well before the qualifying deadline and only promised his personal support.

Carrazana, who travels frequently to Nigeria, would also be the first judge who openly practices Ifa, the African Yoruba religion that hundreds of years ago branched out to Cuba to become an off-shoot faith known popularly as Santeria.

Political observers say targeting candidates with non-Hispanic surnames is a time-honored tactic in Miami-Dade.

In August 2012, then-County Court judge Fleur Lobree — a longtime attorney with the State Attorney’s legal bureau — lost her race to Michelle Alvarez Bakarat.

Since then, Lobree, 46, was appointed again, this time to the circuit bench. This year, she drew opposition from criminal defense attorney Mavel Ruiz.

“This county has a propensity to not support names they don’t recognize,” said Lobree’s campaign consultant, Bob Levy.

He said the campaign decided to hit the “name issue” head on with the creation of a jingle: “Vote for Fleur Lobree, she’s the judge for me!!!”

Ruiz says she did not target Lobree because of her last name. Instead, she believed that since Lobree has twice been appointed, someone else deserved a shot.

Ruiz, who works for the taxpayer-funded Regional Counsel office, says her trial experience will help her manage the day-to-day grind of court. “I’ve also dedicated my life to working with indigent people,” she said.

In other incumbent races:

• Jacqueline Schwartz, 49, a judge for 12 years, is taking on two challengers for her county court seat: former Miami-Dade police major and Miami Lakes city manager Frank Bocanegra, 61, and defense attorney Rachel Glorioso Dooley, 46.
• County Judge Nuria Saenz, 44, is seeking to keep her seat from Miami civil lawyer Victoria Ferrer, 41.

In the open circuit races:

• Defense lawyer Thomas Cobitz, a traffic magistrate and defense lawyer, takes on Stephen Millan, a lawyer with experience handling immigration, criminal defense and bankruptcy cases.
• Defense attorney Alberto Milian, 53, who twice ran unsuccessfully for Miami-Dade State Attorney, is facing lawyer Mary Gomez, 43.
• Oscar Rodriguez-Fonts, a private defense attorney, is taking on Martin Zilber, a mediator and Miami-Dade traffic court magistrate.

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