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CIRCUIT JUDGE // Essrig, 3 lawyers headed for bench

A sitting county judge and three local lawyers with varied legal backgrounds were heading for the circuit court bench late Tuesday.

Meanwhile, two lawyers in another race must face off in a November runoff.

In the contest for Circuit Judge Group 33, County Judge Katherine Essrig, 39, appeared to have bested Charles Scruggs III, a former judge himself.

"Obviously, I'm pleased to be ahead," said Essrig, who is expected to move up to the $104,620-a-year job in January. Running for office, what she considered a natural progression after two terms on the county bench, "was a positive experience," she said from her Hyde Park home Tuesday evening.

Scruggs, 58, who had gathered with supporters at his Davis Islands campaign headquarters, said he would remain optimistic until all the votes were in.

"I think a lot of people perceived (Essrig) as an incumbent," he said. "I think that was certainly a factor."

In Group 13, former sex offenses and child abuse prosecutor Jack Espinosa Jr. appeared to hold a commanding lead in the race against T. Michael Foster, a 57-year-old attorney with an accomplished resume.

"It's been an educational experience. I've gotten to meet so many people," said Espinosa, 41, as he spoke over the din of cheering supporters gathered at his father's Tampa home. "It's really important to meet the people you want to serve."

Foster agreed with the sentiment. "It was good to get out and meet so many people," he said.

In the Group 10 race, lawyer Rex Barbas, 54, was leading his opponent, Linda Thompson Swanick, 40, a former assistant public defender.

"I feel great," said Barbas at his election-watching party at Selena's, a Hyde Park restaurant. "I had no doubt, because of the number of people that were helping me. I don't mean money, I mean people."

"I just feel real good about being a part of the system, running for office and making things count," said Swanick. "It was a nice clean race."

The Group 11 race was something of a nail-biter, with lawyer Ralph Stoddard, 48, leading Herb Berkowitz in the end. Stoddard, who spent Tuesday campaigning from Sun City Center to inner-city neighborhoods to South Tampa, said it had been "a real odyssey."

"I've sure learned a lot about this county," he said, calling his opponent "a very fine man."

"You do the best you can, you do it honorably," said Berkowitz, whose name has been suggested to the governor for a judicial appointment multiple times. "Tomorrow morning I'm not going to wake up and say I should have done something differently."

Lawyers Vivian Maye and Bill Levens appeared headed for a October runoff in the Group 27 race. The two held commanding leads over Mina Morgan and Richard McInnis, who were running in a virtual tie for third.

"This Hispanic community is just so excited at the prospect that I'm going to be the first female Hispanic judge in Hillsborough County," said Maye, 38.

Levens, 49, was pleased with his finish and said he hopes history will work in his favor.

"I'm heartened by the propensity of people in second place in the primary to win in the runoff," Levens said from his Palma Ceia home.

Morgan, 46, remained optimistic that she would run strong in precincts in the southern and eastern parts of the county.

"I think that's where my support is coming from," she said.