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The person most surprised by Palmer Madden’s election to the presidency of the California State Bar last June just might have been Madden himself. Not even in the final minutes as votes were being tallied did he know where he stood in the four-person contest. Months of telephone talks and face-to-face conversations with the voters — fellow members on the Bar’s Board of Governors — had left him clueless. “I didn’t think I was going to be the selected candidate,” Madden says now. “Several people hadn’t said how they were going to vote.” So go the frustrations of seeking office, particularly one as insular as the State Bar presidency. It’s likely the only job in the world where the top executive represents the interests of nearly 180,000 people, but gets elected by only about 20 of them. It’s a unique situation that almost overnight turns hardworking colleagues into fierce, though reportedly collegial, adversaries. And it begs the question about what’s more important to the candidates’ fellow board members — a crackerjack Bar record or a sunny disposition. Five board members will find out today when the 19 current members of the State Bar Board of Governors convene in Los Angeles to choose Madden’s successor for the 2001-02 term. There is no clear-cut frontrunner — and no hanging chads since voting is by secret ballot — so some nerves may be frayed by the time the campaign dust settles. All five candidates are in their third and final year on the board, and will be out the door unless they win the one-year presidential term. The contenders are San Francisco Assistant Public Defender Ronald Albers; James “Jay” Greiner, a criminal defense attorney in Sacramento; Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Karen Nobumoto; James Otto, an of counsel at Torrance’s John Hill & Associates; and David Roth, an Oakland sole practitioner who specializes in real estate and business law and personal injury litigation. The victor doesn’t take office until the State Bar’s annual meeting, which is being held in Anaheim in September. But for the next few days, all the candidates will be doing their best to convince their friends — and foes — on the Board of Governors to put them in office. And though all vow not to make campaign promises, they’re furiously putting out calls and pressing the flesh. Things could get tense. Since the candidates are likely to vote for themselves, that leaves them fighting over a mere 14 votes. And those 14 are already being peppered with phone calls, emails, impromptu hallway talks and campaign statements. “This type of an election has the possibility of building tensions,” says Andrew Guilford, Madden’s presidential predecessor. “And we have to always be vigilant that those dynamics don’t lead to dysfunction on the board.” But that could be difficult. The very fact that candidates for the Bar presidency have known and worked with each other for years, often partying together after meetings, can personalize the whole affair. While board members know all the candidates’ strengths, they also know all their foibles. And while candidates prefer to stress their work records and qualifications, there’s no doubt that personality plays a big role. “You’re voting for the person and their ability to get along with and respect you,” says Raymond Marshall, a McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen partner who served as president from 1998-99. “And to be willing to work with you as their public representative.” By most accounts, electioneering can be a time-consuming process, despite the small voter pool. “You do a lot of telephone calling and one-on-one conversations,” Madden says. “That’s really how it’s done. You get your votes one by one.” Former president Guilford, a partner in the Costa Mesa office of L.A.’s Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, advises a low-key approach, though. “He who campaigns least campaigns best,” he says. “[Voters] tend to shy away from people who campaign hard.” Former Bar governor Paul Hokokian, who ran unsuccessfully for president last year, also warns about possible gamesmanship by some voters who make commitments to more than one candidate. “There is some dishonesty going on,” he says, “in that some people don’t tell you what they’re honestly thinking.” The candidates’ anxiety peaks on election day when a series of secret ballots are cast, with the lowest vote-getter being culled out until only one is left standing. It’s sort of like watching a lawyerly version of the “Survivor” tribal council. During last year’s voting in San Francisco, one of the losers briefly left the room in tears. But everyone understood, because, as Hokokian points out, the State Bar presidency is the pinnacle for lawyers who have devoted years to Bar activities. Falling short of the ultimate goal hurts. “For most of us, it’s the last official Bar activity we’ll be involved with,” says Hokokian, a Fresno County deputy district attorney who was the first casualty in last year’s voting. “You’re pretty much at the end of your Bar career, so there is some remorse that it’s all over.” State Bar officials take the process so seriously that they’ve issued guidelines for the campaigners. Among them is a rule encouraging the candidates not to make personal visits, a rule instituted a few years back, officials say, when one wealthy candidate was flying around the state to meet privately with every voter. “It was an unfair advantage,” Hokokian says. Even so, this year’s candidates agreed to waive the in-person-visit prohibition. But that hasn’t led to any increased campaign flights. “I’ve called everyone, and I’m writing a candidate’s statement that I’m going to send to everyone,” says Nobumoto. “And where I’ve had the opportunity to speak to someone one-on-one, I’ve done so.” There have also been no “Survivor”-style coalitions or, allegedly, any campaign promises. “Any effort in that direction would be counter-productive,” Albers says. Mostly, this year’s five competitors say they want to be judged on their Bar records and on their proposals for what they plan to accomplish as president. “Hopefully what you’ve done in your previous years of service gives people a good idea of what you’d do,” Otto says. “And you hope you can convince people that you would be a good leader.” “I’ve been ‘Jay’ Greiner throughout my entire professional career,” Greiner notes, “and I intend to remain that way.” Nothing the candidates do during the campaign, though, might be as important as the final speech each makes to the Board of Governors on election day. It can be helpful or harmful. “It’s like an appellate argument,” Madden says. “It’s an opportunity to lose the election.” He and Guilford, a litigator who professes a love for public speaking, suggest brief statements, rather than long-winded speeches. “Brevity is good if you can pack a lot in,” Guilford says. “I spoke 10 minutes.” Guilford also wonders whether he benefited from the fact that his opponent, James Seff of San Francisco, had a severe cold the day of the speeches. He doesn’t know for sure to this day. The dynamics of the election change quickly also as one person after another is culled out during the balloting. “Even though a voter may have his mind made up on the first round,” Roth says, “he may not have thought through every possible vote.” That’s why Madden was surprised when he won last year. Some voters told him he wasn’t their top choice, but might be their pick if their favorites lost in early rounds. “In many ways, I was everybody’s second choice,” he says. “Then as people dropped off, I tended to pick up votes.” One former Bar governor says Madden defeated his final opponent, San Diego criminal defense lawyer Thomas Warwick Jr., by one vote. At any rate, all candidates in the race badly want to win, to attain the pinnacle of their Bar career. Albers likens it to being the leader of an orchestra after having been one of the musicians for years. “You really have an opportunity to facilitate the work of the other members of the board,” he says. In the long run, Guilford says, the election will likely go to the candidate perceived by other board members as someone willing to put the Bar’s interests ahead of his or her own. “What works,” he says, “is a demonstrated commitment to the well-being of the Bar association.”

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