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Miami-Dade County Court Judge Harvey Goldstein, a 24-year veteran of the bench, thought he’d run unopposed in next month’s judicial election. But even though he has years of favorable performance reviews by local lawyers, Goldstein found himself fending off a last-minute opponent with one year’s experience as a traffic court magistrate, mediocre reviews — and the backing of political consultants. When Goldstein decided to endure the campaign without help from consultants, a friend responded, “Grow up. Stop acting like a kid. If you hired Armando Gutierrez, look how much less aggravation you and your family would have.” Goldstein’s dilemma is one being faced by all judicial candidates. And as 46 county and circuit judgeships come up for election in Florida on Sept. 5 — with 36 of the seats unopposed — the consensus among judges, candidates and other legal professionals is that campaign consultants hold considerable sway over which candidates get opposed and by whom. The perceived influence of these consultants leaves few candidates willing to run without them. Part of the campaigning strategy involves hiring one or all of the four consultants most in demand — Armando Gutierrez, Susan Fried, Bobbie Mumford and Bob Levy — to make sure a candidate is rubbing elbows with the right people at the right times. It’s good business, too. Gutierrez and Fried both charge $15,000 to handle a race. Multiply that $15,000 by a 18 judicial candidates for Fried alone this year, and it’s a tidy sum for the Aventura, Fla., grandmother who’s been handling political races since she was 15. Nowadays, judicial candidates feel obliged not just to hire a consultant, who promotes his or her candidacy throughout the county. They feel obliged to hire two or three or four at the same time: Gutierrez, to take the candidacy to Hispanic voters, for instance; Fried, to secure the Jewish vote in Aventura condos; Bobbie Mumford to campaign for African-American voters; and Levy for overall strategizing. It all makes sense to Miami-Dade County Court Judge Steve Leifman, who says that if you need medical help, you go to a doctor and if you need political expertise, you hire a consultant. “Is it pretty? No,” he says. “Is it very comfortable running for judge? No.” The consultants, however, have come under fire as some campaign observers accuse them of subtle coercion: basically, making it understood that if a judicial candidate doesn’t hire them, they will find someone to run against that candidate. “Have I heard that people have felt coerced? The answer is yes,” says Edith Osman, a partner at Tampa, Fla.-based Carlton Fields and immediate past president of the Florida Bar. “There’s nothing wrong with having two candidates in a race. What’s wrong is that the race gets selected by who has the money to pay a public relations person.” Among the critics is Gerald Schwartz, one of the deans of campaign consulting in Miami-Dade. Schwartz has eased off the campaign trail in recent years and these days criticizes the impact of political tactics. “It all stinks; it doesn’t happen in other counties,” Schwartz says “I think the severity of the virtual blackmail on the part of certain consultants has increased dramatically.” If a candidate seeks out a consultant, that’s one thing, he adds. “But if the feeling is that, if you don’t hire me, we’re going to just have to put an opponent in your race, that’s quite different.” For example, in Goldstein’s race, the opponent is Karen Mills Francis. In the most recent Dade County Bar Association poll, released Tuesday, only 45 percent of respondents ranked her as either qualified or exceptionally qualified to be judge. By contrast, 90 percent of respondents rated Goldstein qualified or exceptionally qualified. There’s no reason for top judges to have an opponent “simply because consultants had no place else to put their candidate,” contends Schwartz. In the case of Francis, whose consultants are Gutierrez and Mumford, it was Francis herself and not a consultant who decided which race to enter, the candidate says. Bar polls unfairly favor an incumbent, she adds, because candidates who are not judges are relatively unknown among fellow lawyers. Some of Schwartz’s competitors say there’s no coercion involved, implied or otherwise. And they insist they represent qualified candidates. Gutierrez didn’t want to comment in detail on the issue. “It’s a free country,” he says. “People hire whomever they want to. Lawyers, when they have a case, hire experts and other people. We’re the ones in the political field.” He insists that he vets candidates before agreeing to represent them. “I check out their resum�,” he says, adding, “The Bar poll doesn’t show everything. People I call tell me they’re good lawyers.” Fried, for her part, says she’s “stupefied” that anyone, particularly longtime competitor Schwartz, would accuse her of coercing candidates to hire her. “I don’t call them. They call me,” she says. If they feel coerced, she says, that perception exists only in their minds. “There are candidates in Dade County who have won elections without consultants. But I wouldn’t practice law without a license, I don’t go to a doctor without a degree and expertise, and if you are in any field, it’s the same.” Indeed, a number of clients attest to the work that Fried and the others do. For example, they determine which events a candidate should attend, orchestrate production of “palm cards” that serve as election-booth tip sheets for voters unable to remember long lists of candidates’ names, and communicate with sectors of the electorate with which a judge, perhaps unpolitical by inclination or experience, would not otherwise know how to reach. “This is a very diverse community, and you need somebody to consult with about each community,” says Circuit Judge Barbara Levenson, who is not up for election this time. One judicial candidate, who asked not to be identified, says his $15,000 was well-spent by hiring Gutierrez during the last election cycle and notes that he hired Gutierrez again this time, even though he’s running unopposed. “He earned it last time,” the candidate says. One candidate notes that Gutierrez, who attained a national spotlight crusading for Elian Gonzalez, finds himself representing many Anglo candidates running against lawyers of Hispanic descent. Luise Krieger Martin hired the team of Gutierrez, Fried, Mumford and Laurie Flink — an aide to Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas who has a campaign business on the side — in a race against Adriana Quirantes for a county judge seat. “I’m in the position of being a novice in this area and needing expert advice,” says Krieger Martin. “I’m a lawyer. I’m not familiar with advertising. I’m not familiar with politics on this level, and I need advice and the expertise that comes from Armando and Susan, and Bobbie Mumford.” Still, that doesn’t comfort observers such as Greenberg Traurig lawyer and former Florida Bar president Alan Dimond. Dimond, who supports a proposed change to have judges be appointed by the governor rather than by election, says such tactics will continue to be a fact of life in judicial races as long as judges are elected. “As long as voters support this concept of electing judges,” he says, “they then have to assume they will behave in a political way to get their message out, to get elected.”

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