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Judicial candidate's cash may not beat rival's gender

He had name recognition. He had contacts. He worked for one of the state's most prominent law firms. He had a long list of donors and money — lots of it. He put up signs and sent out mailers and even bought some TV spots.

By the August primary, civil lawyer Robert Angus Williams had outspent his campaign opponent 7-to-1.

And he finished second in the race for Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge by nearly 10,000 votes.

"It is a little frustrating," Williams said.

But very interesting for observers of the runoff, the lone remaining race to join the 6th Judicial Circuit bench.

Assistant Public Defender Susan Gardner won the three-way race in August. But she barely spent any money, and she's the first to admit that blemishes on her record make her an imperfect candidate.

But in November's election Williams may have to battle more than just Gardner — he may also have to take on a political phenomenon:

Women seem to have an extra edge in judicial races.

University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus explained the phenomenon in a presentation to the Florida Association of Women Lawyers in Miami last year.

There were 233 candidates for circuit court in 2006, but just 76 — 33 percent — were women.

Yet when women competed against men, they won 52 percent of the races.

Altogether, women won 78 percent of their races.

Aside from experience, qualifications and campaign resources, MacManus offered several theories that could also explain why female candidates are so strong in judicial races.

First, she thinks women do better in what she called "low-information" races.

That's judicial races in a nutshell. They're nonpartisan, and rules forbid candidates from doing much more than touting their experience and resumes. They can't take public positions, or even take on their opponents. So where does that leave voters?

"In these kinds of low-information races people often vote on other cues," the professor said. "Women tend to make up the majority of the electorate. If they don't know much about the candidates, sometimes they'll vote for women."

Another factor that might be in a female judicial candidate's favor: an angry electorate.

"They do better in times when people are mad at government," MacManus said. "That's why this year, when the electorate is pretty mad at government, there's speculation that women candidates will do very well."

Prosecutor and soon-to-be Judge Mary Handsel won her second judicial race in August's three-way primary with more than 50 percent of the vote.

In both campaigns she's had male and female voters admit they knew nothing about the candidates. They said they made an instinctive — albeit unscientific — choice: they thought women fairer then men.

"Well, if the only decision you can make is from a name," Handsel said, "then they're going to pick a female."

But it would be unfair to say the career prosecutor, or any woman, won just because they were women.

"You have to work for it," Handsel said.

Money isn't everything in politics. But Gardner spent so little in the primary that these theories could help explain what might have happened in her race.

She shelled out about $11,500 on her primary campaign, yet won the three-way race with 43,757 votes, or 42 percent of the electorate.

Williams, by comparison, got 33 percent and 34,365 votes — and he spent more than $86,000.

State records show that at the end of September, Williams raised $108,000. He said he may spend more than $125,000 by the end.

Gardner has spent about $13,000 over the same period. She said she might spend another $1,000.

The candidates struggle with what all this means.

To Gardner, it means that what she spends means little. "There's still those races where it's not about the money," she said.

Williams can't accept the notion that anything other than logic could play a role in the race.

"It's hard for me to understand that people would just vote based on gender," he said. "Just like it would be hard for me to think that people would vote based on race or ethnicity.

"It's just a concept that in my own personal life is hard to believe. It's unfathomable."

The two candidates could not have taken more different paths to the law if they tried.

Williams, 38, started out in 1995 as a prosecutor in Clearwater. Four years later he went to work for Fowler White Boggs Banker in Tampa.

He handles land-use issues and represents builders, developers and local governments, primarily in Pasco. He's a married father of two and a board member of the Pasco Building Association.

Gardner, 46, is a single mother who raised three kids by herself and went to law school — after her husband walked out. After years of struggle, she joined the Florida Bar in 1999. She worked in private practice with her father, then became a public defender in the New Port Richey office in 2006.

But she has a long record of driving offenses — more than a dozen citations — and even a 2003 arrest in Pinellas on a misdemeanor charge of failing to appear in court.

The original infraction was a zoning violation. But Gardner said she got the court dates mixed up. When she went to court to pay the fine, she said, the warrant was discovered and she was briefly detained.

Most of her traffic infractions — careless driving, driving with an improper tag, driving with an open container of alcohol, driving with a suspended license — took place before she was a lawyer.

Some of the tag and license problems were financial, Gardner said. Some of the traffic problems resulted from the hectic schedule of work, school and child care. That open container infraction in 1991? She was sitting in a vehicle that had been turned off, she said, parked along her parents' property.

None of that, she said, should disqualify her from the bench.

"I have empathy because I've been on that side of the podium and paid the hefty fines," she said, "I know a speeding ticket does not make me a bad person, and it does not make me a bad candidate."

Gardner said her driving history has been sent out anonymously to other lawyers and even made it onto the Bubba the Love Sponge radio show last week.

Williams said that was not done at his behest but that he believes voters should know about Gardner's record.

"I don't know the full circumstances of what went on," he said. "A judge absolutely must respect the law, respect other people, respect the rules we all live under."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8472.

Judicial candidate's cash may not beat rival's gender 10/18/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 24, 2008 6:16pm]
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