Voters on Tuesday elected Miami assistant city attorney Veronica Diaz to the judicial bench while two of four incumbent judges lost their seats to upstart challengers and one may be headed to a run-off race.
Diaz, 36, easily defeated former Miami-Dade School Board Member Renier Diaz de la Portilla in what was the most hotly contested judicial race.
“The people of Miami-Dade realized they wanted someone with experience and who wasn’t a politician,” Diaz said late Tuesday. “All of the mud-slinging was very disgusting but at the end of the day, the voters chose correctly. I’m so looking forward to representing all of the citizens of Miami-Dade County.”
Meanwhile, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Fleur Lobree lost her second judicial election – this time to defense lawyer Mavel Ruiz. And County Judge Nuria Saenz, criticized because of her support from a big-spending auto insurance company, lost to personal injury attorney Victoria Ferrer.
Current County Judge Jacqueline Schwartz led all votes in her three-way race, but as of late Tuesday night, had yet to crack the 50-percent barrier. That means she could be heading to a November runoff against former Miami-Dade Police Maj. Frank Bocanegra.
Only incumbent Rod Smith, a circuit judge who had widespread support from South Florida’s legal community, comfortably won his race against Christian Carrazana.
In all, 32 circuit judges and seven county judges retained their seats when no one chose to run against them.
Circuit judges preside over cases ranging from felonies to juvenile and complex civil disputes, while county judges oversee minor civil disputes and misdemeanor cases.
There were eight contested races – which are normally staid because of ethical rules barring full-fledged campaigning by judicial candidates.
But this season was marked by the emergence of political committees supporting judicial candidates, and no race was more bitterly fought than the one pitting Diaz de la Portilla against Diaz.
In attacking each candidates, rival political committees sent out attack mailers featuring unflattering photos and chronicling supposed ethical lapses.
In the other high-profile races, Smith faced off against Carrazana, while Saenz lost to Ferrer.
Both those races were highlighted by the incumbents’ support from a political committee created by Miami’s United Auto Insurance, which spent over $300,000 to support their campaigns.
Carrazana and Ferrer are both personal injury attorneys, a group that frequently battles against the insurance industry in court and started a rival, if less well-funded, political committee.
“I’m humbled by the decision of the voters of Miami-Dade,” Ferrer said Tuesday night. “It shows the dollar bills don’t go to the polls. The people go to the polls.”
The 2014 judicial races were also marked by the usual dose of Miami ethnic surname politics.
Smith supporters accused Carrazana, a Cuban American, of running against the incumbent hoping to win on the appeal of his last name in the heavily Hispanic county.
The campaign of Lobree – who lost her appointed county seat in an election two years ago – also believed she was targeted because of her last name. Lobree lost by a large margin, despite outspending her opponent by nearly $80,000.
In the other circuit races:
• Lawyer Martin Zilber held a slim lead over Oscar Rodriguez with about 20 percent of precincts not yet counted late Tuesday.
• Defense attorney Alberto Milian, 53, who twice ran unsuccessfully for Miami-Dade State Attorney, handily defeated Mary Gomez.
• Stephen Millan, a lawyer with experience handling immigration, criminal defense and bankruptcy cases, easily defeated traffic magistrate and defense lawyer Thomas Cobitz.