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Jason Murray thinks the Dade County, Fla., Bar Association needs to do much more to encourage racial, ethnic and sexual diversity in its ranks. Tom Pennekamp Jr. believes the association already has done a lot. This disagreement is at the heart of the 4,000-member association’s first serious presidential election battle in many years. Murray, a Carlton Fields shareholder and president of the Black Lawyers Association of Dade County, is running an aggressive insurgent campaign to become the first black attorney ever to lead the group. But Pennekamp, the association’s current vice president and a partner at Grossman & Roth in Miami, argues that he has superior experience and legislative moxie, and that would make him a better qualified president-elect. Members have been mailing in their ballots to DCBA headquarters this month; all ballots must be received by 1 p.m. on Friday, when they will be counted. The results will be certified at the DCBA board of directors meeting on June 13. All the other officers are running unopposed for the next-highest office. President-elect and Miami sole practitioner William Aaron will become president, succeeding Colson Hicks Eidson partner Ervin A. Gonzalez. Secretary John H. “Jack” Hickey, a Miami solo, will become vice president. Board member John W. Thornton Jr., a partner at the Miami firm Thornton & Rothman, will become treasurer. Treasurer Robert J. Fiore, a Miami solo, will become secretary. A number of other candidates are running for open board seats. In total, 14 candidates are running to fill six positions available among the 29 elected positions on the board of directors. Murray, who has chaired a committee but has not held an officer’s position, is bucking convention by running for president-elect without having served previously as an officer. The tradition at the 80-year-old DCBA is that candidates for the office pay their dues by working their way up the ladder of treasurer, secretary and vice president. Supporters of that tradition say that serving as an officer before becoming president provides needed experience and more intimate knowledge about how the organization, which has an annual operating budget of more than $400,000, is run. But Murray says it is time to end the system of “election through progression,” contending that it doesn’t encourage the most capable candidates to run. “It’s not a good system because it causes candidates to lose interest,” he says. “What the association deserves is the best person for the job, period.” While the DCBA has no formal rule prohibiting nonofficers from running for president, Murray, if he wins, would be the first nonofficer candidate to win the top spot since 1984. Pennekamp, 37, has portrayed himself as a leader with a proven track record who is familiar with the internal workings of the DCBA. He is betting that association members will vote him in because of his experience as a DCBA officer, and because of the tradition that the vice president automatically becomes president-elect. “The Dade County Bar Association has had a very effective administration, and I’ve been proud to be a part of that,” Pennekamp says. “I know how the association operates, I’ve been working hard, and I want to keep doing that.” DIVERSITY IMPACT? Those who sit on the DCBA’s 35-member board of directors have mixed views about what Murray’s presidency would mean to the organization. One member who did not want to be identified says he thinks a Murray presidency would inspire more black and other minority lawyers to become members. But another member predicts that Murray’s leadership wouldn’t have any great effect because Murray, who has been a member of the DCBA for nine years and a board member for three, can encourage minorities to join without being president. Murray counters that the presidency will give him a higher-profile position to lure minorities into the fold. Former DCBA president Dennis Kainen says that no matter who wins, the organization will thrive. He said both candidates come from respected law firms and both are well regarded among the members. He says Murray may be able to beef up minority membership on the board, which currently has three black members. Pennekamp, on the other hand, has the benefit of familiarity and has already forged close ties with the DCBA’s officers whom the president must work with to implement his agenda, Kainen notes. “In the end, we are going to have a good candidate,” he says. “It’s too bad we can’t have both of them.” Murray, 35, has made diversity in the legal community the centerpiece of his platform. “The legal profession needs to become more diverse and inclusive, so it only makes sense for our legal associations to follow suit,” he says. “I’m going to work to make that happen.” He vows to attract more minority and female attorneys into the DCBA, one of the largest voluntary bar groups in the country and one of the most politically active. And he’s been campaigning hard at the county’s largest and most powerful law firms. TROLLING FOR VOTES In the last two weeks, he’s roamed the halls of Greenberg Traurig, Akerman Senterfitt, Bilzin Sumberg Dunn Baena Price & Axelrod, Holland & Knight, Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Aldadeff & Sitterson, Steel Hector & Davis, and Zack Kosnitzky. One DCBA member who didn’t want to be identified says this was a smart strategy, because attorneys at the large firms can form powerful voting blocs. Murray has dipped into his own pocket and spent a large sum — he won’t reveal how much — for mailing campaign fliers to many DCBA members. Board members monitoring the election report that he’s spent thousands of dollars on newspaper ads. His campaign manager, Michelle Gervias-Kullman, an associate at Carlton Fields, and his legal assistant, Sandy Famadas, are helping to disseminate the campaign materials. Murray has chaired the DCBA’s judicial issues committee, which studied state bills that threatened the independence of the courts and the Florida Bar. He argues that the association’s membership is not reflective of Miami-Dade County, though the association does not keep statistics on the racial, ethnic, or gender breakdown of its membership. Members of the local minority bar associations, he says, don’t see the DCBA addressing their issues as forcefully as it could. “I attend these big events organized by the Dade County Bar and when I look around the room at the people there, they seem very homogenous,” Murray says. “We need to make a better effort to bring more black lawyers, more Hispanic lawyers and more women lawyers into the fold.” As president of the Black Lawyers Association of Dade County, Murray has been outspoken and active in recent months on the issue of minority attorney hiring at law firms. Last month, he organized a luncheon for some of the county’s most prominent law partners and managing partners. With Akerman Senterfitt shareholder and former 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Joseph Hatchett, at his side, Murray gave a speech decrying recent statistics showing only 12 black partners out of a total of 1,500 black lawyers practicing in Miami-Dade. Murray and the black lawyers’ group now are working with managing partners at several major law firms to craft a model diversity mission statement to help increase diversity among firm shareholders. On other issues, Murray promises to press state legislators to provide public campaign financing for judges running for election so they don’t need to raise money from private attorneys and potentially compromise their independence. He also hopes to promote professionalism among lawyers through increased charity and pro bono service, and he hopes to expand the DCBA’s benefits and services to its members, including various discount arrangements with local service businesses. ‘SILLY’ CAMPAIGN In a swipe at Murray, Pennekamp says treating the election like a political campaign is “silly.” He stresses his service in the DCBA’s highest posts, including secretary and treasurer, comparing that with Murray’s work on several DCBA committees. By working his way up through the association’s ranks, like most past presidents, Pennekamp says, he’s gained a deep familiarity with the association that Murray lacks. Pennekamp particularly touts his role on the association’s state legislative task force, which worked closely with Florida Bar President Herman Russomanno during the recently completed legislative session. He and other task force members traveled to Tallahassee to oppose Republican efforts to limit the powers of the Florida Supreme and the Florida Bar. He boasts that his task force’s efforts helped block some of the most dangerous anti-Bar and anti-judiciary measures, such as the proposed constitutional amendment to strip the Florida Bar of its power to regulate lawyers and collect fees. “I’m proud of my record,” Pennekamp says. “We’ve shown results.” Pennekamp criticizes Murray’s failure to work his way up to the presidency through lower offices. “In most organizations, there is a progression where you work up the network through officer positions to gain the trust of the leadership,” he says. “I think if he started out as treasurer and worked his way up, he would be helping himself and the organization more.” He feels so sure of his position that he says he’s spent very little money campaigning. He hasn’t mailed out fliers or made speeches at law firms, has done without a campaign manager, and hasn’t developed a formal platform of positions and issues. He has limited himself to chatting up DCBA members one-on-one at various events. On diversity issues, Pennekamp says he’s proud of what the DCBA already has done. It’s granted the county’s associations of African-American and Cuban-American lawyers seats on the DCBA board of directors. “I believe diversity is wonderful, and I’d love to see all legal organizations become more diverse,” Pennekamp says. Asked what his priorities would be as president, Pennekamp promises to maintain pressure on the Florida Legislature not to interfere with the independence of the judiciary. He also says he would promote professionalism by encouraging more local attorneys to do pro bono work and participate in community programs like the association’s Career Day, when lawyers visit local high schools to talk to students about what they do. Murray, who was born in Miami, graduated from the University of Virginia law school in 1991. He joined Carlton Fields in 1997 and became a shareholder in February 1999. He practices commercial litigation in state and federal courts. Pennekamp, born in Coral Gables, Fla., graduated from the University of Florida law school 1990. He became partner at Grossman & Roth in 1998, where his practice focuses on medical malpractice, negligence and personal injury cases. Current DCBA president Ervin Gonzalez predicts that at least 60 percent of members will cast a vote, which he said would be consistent with previous elections. That would be much higher than the voter percentage in Miami-Dade for the last Florida Bar election, which drew only about 3,000 votes from the more than 12,000 Florida Bar members in the county.

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