TAMPA — Known in Hillsborough County courtrooms for the fear he instilled in veteran lawyers, Norman Cannella Sr. became a legend in Tampa without ever holding elected office.
But Norman Cannella Jr. has other plans. The 46-year-old son of one of Tampa's most prominent criminal defense attorneys is running for a Hillsborough County judgeship, challenging a little-known incumbent who's been on the bench for less than a year.
Though judicial elections are typically dull affairs, constrained by a list of rules that prevent candidates from saying much about anything, this race has been an exception. It has deeply divided the legal community here, putting lawyers in the awkward position of deciding between a sitting judge who is well-liked by his colleagues and a powerful South Tampa family.
It's difficult to overestimate the respect and awe the name Cannella conjures south of Kennedy Boulevard.
At the peak of his career at the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, the elder Cannella essentially ran the agency without officially leading it. That role fell to E.J. Salcines, the state attorney from 1977 to 1983, who looked on while his chief assistant made subordinates tremble. Cannella Sr. was well aware of the effect his cigar-chewing, Colt Commander-carrying persona had on other prosecutors.
A failed attempt to 1984 to indict him on charges he took $75,000 in bribes to protect a Tampa drug ring did little but ensure that another generation of lawyers would remember him. "I was feared," he told a Tampa Bay Times reporter who profiled him a decade ago.
Last summer, when his son jumped into the judicial race, Cannella Sr. did, too.
Because judicial candidates are barred from raising money themselves, the elder Cannella oversees his son's financial committee. He regularly makes calls to ask old friends to write checks. And when Tampa attorney William Knight ended his challenge to Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe, Cannella Sr. put a letter in the mail to dozens of lawyers, suggesting that those who had contributed to that race consider redirecting their money to his son. As of the most recent filing, Cannella Jr. had raised about $85,000, much of it from close friends of his father.
"People appreciate that maybe they don't know me as well as my father, but they can see that normally, the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree," Cannella Jr. said.
A native of Tampa, from 1996 to 2001 the younger Cannella was a prosecutor with the State Attorney's Office. Since then, he has been a private criminal defense attorney, most notably representing radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem, whose case he worked on with his father.
On this Aug. 26 primary ballot, he will have an added boost — he has dropped the "Jr." dangling at the end of his name. He is listed only as "Norman S. Cannella." He's not trying to confuse people, he says, explaining that anyone who drives by one of his campaign signs can see that he's not his father.
Listed below him on the ballot is his opponent Chris Nash, who turns 43 today, and had been on the bench for only a few weeks when he learned he had a challenger.
Nash and his family moved to Hillsborough when he was a teenager. In 1999, after getting his law degree and a master's degree in business administration from the University of Florida, he returned to Hillsborough County. He has lived here ever since, practicing business law. When Gov. Rick Scott elevated Judge Matthew Lucas to the Circuit Court, Nash was one of about 40 people who applied for the County Court vacancy.
Maybe it was that he interviewed well, or maybe it was his college friendship with Florida's Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, but last year Nash was Scott's pick to fill the seat. The decision surprised him, he said. He had expected to wait years before being selected.
In the months since then, Nash says he's worked hard to campaign and be a good judge at the same time. His docket is a mix of people fighting traffic tickets, tenants battling with landlords and plaintiffs trying to recoup debts.
"The job itself I really, really love," he said. The campaigning and self-promotion required to keep the job, less so. Still, major law firms, Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee, and Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt have endorsed him. In a Hillsborough Bar Association survey, 99 percent of the 430 people who rated Nash as a candidate said they either "highly approve" or "approve" of him. Asked about Cannella Jr., 70 percent of the 254 people who responded gave him high ratings.
Noting that only 15 percent of the bar association's members participated in its survey, Cannella Jr. said the results were skewed. It doesn't help that Nash is an incumbent, he added, in a county where many lawyers believe in letting sitting judges go unchallenged.
"It's the unspoken fear within the legal community that if you support somebody that's running against an incumbent or you run against an incumbent, you've got a lot to be afraid of," said Tampa defense attorney Lyann Goudie.
There have been exceptions, such as in 2008 when family law attorney Catherine Catlin defeated incumbent Circuit Judge J. Kevin Carey. But often, candidates who decide to run against judges are treated with a mix of scorn and pity.
"If this was an election just between Nash and me, and he wasn't the incumbent, I would bury him," Cannella Jr. said.
Contact Anna M. Phillips at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354. Follow her @annamphillips.