Gordon Weekes likes to think of the Broward Public Defender’s Office, for which he has worked for two decades, as a cookie. A rainbow-sprinkled cookie to be exact, covered in ants.
“We are constantly being devoured, but we endure,” he said. “When you go into a courtroom ... the judge is asking me questions, the clients are asking me questions, and we have to be able to endure all of that chaos. So we’re that sweet little cookie that everyone is trying to get.”
This metaphor is represented by a close-up photo inside the entrance of Weekes’ office depicting this event, which he took himself.
Weekes filed paperwork Wednesday to run for Broward public defender, replacing the retiring “Help Me Howard” Finkelstein, who has held the office since 2004 and has worked as in the public defender’s office for 33 years with an additional seven in private practice. His term is up in 2020. An institution within Broward for his aggressive advocacy for the poor and mentally ill as well as for his Channel 7 appearances, Finkelstein said it’s time for new blood in the office.
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“When I started 40 years ago, Broward County was a small, sleepy, Southern, white, white, white, town,” he said. “We are now a majority-minority county. The next person who sits in this seat needs to be somebody that understands those minority communities.”
Weekes, 46, is African American.
Despite the retirement, Finkelstein will keep providing twice-weekly legal commentary on Channel 7 on his “Help Me Howard” news segment as long as they’ll let him, he said. He is entering his 20th year on the air.
Finkelstein, 62, had a mission at the outset of his election: to reverse what he saw as an ethical and moral corruption within the office. He established Broward County’s drug court as well as the first mental health court in the country, designed to direct those with mental illnesses to treatment as an alternative to incarceration.
He has steered clear of politics during his tenure and never endorsed a single candidate in an effort to keep the office politically neutral, he said. But he’s making an exception for Weekes.
“Gordon wants to continue the mission of equal justice, period,” Finkelstein said. “He’s not looking to become state attorney, the attorney general, the governor. He’s here for the work.”
My great fear is, if Broward acts how Broward has acted historically, they’ll put some political lizard in this position and in the end it’ll all be happy [expletive] and poor people will get screwed.
In many places, the position of public defender is handed down like an heirloom from one officeholder to the next, with little credible opposition. But Finkelstein said the rapid growth of Broward County into a metropolitan area means other candidates might jump into the race.
“My great fear is, if Broward acts how Broward has acted historically, they’ll put some political lizard in this position and in the end it’ll all be happy [expletive] and poor people will get screwed,” he said.
Weekes doesn’t see himself as a symbol of Broward’s next generation. He said he just wants to continue Finkelstein’s mission, but in his own way.
“I'm not only someone who understands how to maneuver in court, but I’m also someone who understands the community that it serves in order to be a voice to all that power,” he said. “Howard has been a great mentor, but I am not Howard. I’m not a new version of Howard, I am Gordon. And I’m going to do things differently, I just don’t know what those things are [yet].”
Weekes, born and raised in Miami, started his career as an intern in the public defender’s office after a hiring freeze prevented him from becoming an air traffic controller, as planned. He said that internship changed the course of his life, and made him realize his love for the law. He has been the chief assistant to the public defender, specializing in representing juveniles charged as adults, for the past decade.
One of the changes he hopes to make is to take a careful look at how old forensic techniques have been used as evidence of the presence of controlled substances.
The next election for Broward public defender isn’t until 2020. But Weekes said his early filing gives him the chance to travel and speak to residents about their concerns, including discriminatory policing, one of his focus areas.
Howard has been a great mentor, but I am not Howard. I’m not a new version of Howard, I am Gordon. And I’m going to do things differently, I just don't know what those things are [yet].
Weekes’ love for the law has limits. Also in his office, across from the photo of the ants, is an 1858 treatise “On the Laws of Negro Slavery” — a reminder that the law sometimes must be challenged.
“Because in law school they instill in attorneys the importance of upholding the law, following the law, but there was a time when the law just wasn’t right,” he said. “... It’s up to attorneys to stretch the law and make it into a more perfect union.”