The hits keep coming in Hillsborough County judicial race

The contest has been unusually fiery for a campaign for judge.
Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge Jared Smith (left) is facing a challenge from Nancy Jacobs.
Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge Jared Smith (left) is facing a challenge from Nancy Jacobs. [ Courtesy of candidates ]
Published Aug. 12, 2022|Updated Aug. 12, 2022

A fiery Hillsborough County judicial race is generating negative campaigning and heavy spending rarely seen in staid judgeship races, including attack ads against both candidates, incumbent Circuit Judge Jared Smith and his challenger, Nancy Jacobs.

Such ads are prohibited for judicial candidates, but not for outside interests.

Attack mailers against Smith have come from a local progressive group, possibly funded by local lawyers or other national or statewide progressive groups.

An attack on Jacobs came from a web site run by a company working for Smith in what critics contend was an illegal campaign ad. But Smith and the company both deny that his campaign was responsible, and the video involved has been taken down.

In another sign of the bitterness, county Public Defender Julianne Holt confirmed she has withdrawn her endorsement of Smith -- highly unusual because attorneys don’t want to anger judges before whom they may have to practice.

Holt didn’t comment on why.

The negativity stems in part from a decision by Smith in a “Jane Doe” case denying a minor the right to have an abortion without her father’s consent. It was overturned on appeal, but publicity about it inspired backing for Jacobs by reproductive rights advocates.

A mailer circulating in the race for a Hillsborough County circuit court judge race.
A mailer circulating in the race for a Hillsborough County circuit court judge race. [ Handout ]

Smith, active in a conservative evangelical church, has injected Christian overtones into his campaign, leading to accusations of anti-Semitism. Jacobs is Jewish.

She has filed a judicial campaign ethics complaint against him but won’t say what it concerns.

The anti-Smith mailers came from a committee, Progressive Youth, run by Tampa-based political operative John Fox. They picture Smith alongside an obstetrical exam table, saying Smith “thinks he can rule on what you can do with your own body,” and “thinks women are too dumb to make their own bodily choices.”

Fox said more mailers may be coming.

“I have two daughters, this is our home, and I’m fighting for them,” he said.

Reverse side of mailer.
Reverse side of mailer. [ Handout ]

Just before the mailers went out in July, two prominent local law firms, Swope Rodante and Trentalange & Kelley, each gave $25,000 to another Fox-linked committee. It then gave $35,000 to Progressive Youth, which then spent $30,648 on mailers.

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But Mike Trentalange said he intended his contribution to influence county commission races and had no intention of getting involved in the judicial race. He noted that he has given $1,000 campaign contributions to both Smith and Jacobs.

Dale Swope has donated only to Smith; he didn’t respond to calls to his office.

The two committees have other funding sources as well, including national and statewide progressive political organizations.

Meanwhile, a video attacking Jacobs for a “woke … liberal agenda” briefly appeared on the Tampa Bay Today Facebook page run by a digital advertising firm. Campaign finance reports show Smith has paid the firm $2,000 for “advertising” and “social media work.”

The video didn’t include a disclaimer legally required for campaign ads, and judicial candidates aren’t allowed to make personal attacks.

But Smith and the site’s operator, Jaime Arellano, both denied that his campaign paid for or authorized the video, saying the money was to boost exposure of Smith’s campaign Facebook page.