When Johnnie Byrd left Tallahassee after serving as House speaker eight years ago, the judgments were not kind — from his peers or the public.
Now Speaker Byrd wants to be Judge Byrd.
"I feel the call to public service," Byrd says. "I know that I can be the best circuit judge Hillsborough County has ever had."
He wasn't the best speaker Florida has ever had.
In Tallahassee, Byrd hired 13 communications specialists at a cost of $600,000.
He ran for the U.S. Senate while he was speaker, and got 6 percent of the primary vote.
He punished Republicans who refused to back him on an election-year phone-rate freeze.
He said House members were so docile they acted like "sheep." Lobbyists mocked him by wearing plastic sheep masks on the last night of his final session.
Byrd championed social issues as speaker. He fought for state intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, backed a parental-notice abortion law and sponsored Florida's ban on same-sex marriages.
As a partisan Republican legislator, Byrd criticized the "liberal justices" on the state Supreme Court.
Termed out of office in 2004, he went back to Plant City to practice law. Now, as a candidate for a seat on the circuit bench in Hillsborough, he promises to be "faithful to the law" (that's on his website, johnniebyrd.com).
Ten trial court judges in the Tampa circuit are up for re-election this fall, but only one drew opposition: Mark Wolfe, 56, appointed by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2004.
Wolfe was a finalist for a spot on the 2nd District Court of Appeal two years ago. He, like Byrd, is a registered Republican.
Byrd has appeared in front of Wolfe several times at the courthouse in Plant City, an experience he calls "somewhat disappointing."
"He (Wolfe) would say stuff like, 'I've got 2,000 cases,' like he was too busy," Byrd said. "He was acting like he was doing everybody a favor by being out here. He was disorganized, inconsistent and unavailable."
What most irked Byrd, he said, was calling Wolfe's office for a court date and hearing a message that he says went along the lines of, "We're out. Don't leave a message. Call us next week."
Wolfe says he doesn't recall what message Byrd is talking about, but his court assistant was told to leave a message that she would return calls when she was able.
He says he routinely stayed late to sign search warrants and handle other duties.
"My reputation as far as handling a court and being a judge is excellent," Wolfe said. "And Mr. Byrd would regularly come by and say hi to my judicial assistant, and at no time did he ever indicate he was having difficulty getting court time."
Asked to assess Byrd's record as House speaker from 2002-2004, Wolfe said: "No, I don't think that would be appropriate."
A circuit judge's salary will be $142,178 as of July 1.
Byrd's financial disclosure form shows he earned $81,157 last year from his firm, Byrd & Barnhill, but he sees the bench as his true calling.
"This is where I can make a difference and I can really excel," Byrd said, "and the really good thing about it is that it's nonpartisan."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.