Carlton: Could an ethnic name doom a judicial candidate — even now?

Hillsborough judicial candidate Eilam Michael Isaak, running as E. Michael Isaak.  [Times (2009)]
Hillsborough judicial candidate Eilam Michael Isaak, running as E. Michael Isaak. [Times (2009)]
Published August 25 2018

Running for judge is an odd thing. Judges are supposed to appear impartial, so candidates don’t really talk politics or take stances. Mostly, they just tout their lawyerly resumes.

To which voters tend to respond: Yawn.

As a result, the average citizen may know zero about the people running for the bench. Which can make a candidate’s name on the ballot — and the image it conjures up — a very big factor.

You hear lots of common wisdom on this: It’s said that in judicial races, female names generally have the edge, particularly in a sea of male ones. (On this year’s Hillsborough County ballot, might that work in reverse for candidates named Robin and Jamey — both men?) Hispanic names are also thought to fare well in Hillsborough.

Then there’s the oft-repeated theory that Jewish-sounding names in races in which the entire county votes — not smaller specific districts — will have a hard time in Hillsborough’s more rural eastern and southern corners. And that goes for all races, not just judicial ones.

Could this be true, even today?

Former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, who is Jewish, says that’s definitely the perception: "I think that part of the county is much more white and conservative, and I think many people who live there don’t consider Jews to be a religious group that should — not could, but should — govern."

When I saw the shiny flyer pushing Michael Isaak for county judge among all the ones stuffing my mailbox — picturing a nice-looking family and touting his legal experience — I wondered if he was related to Eilam Isaak, the defense lawyer when I was a juror on a DUI case way back in 2005.

The very same person, it turns out. Except instead of his first name — Eilam — he is running under his middle name, Michael or E. Michael, in ads and on the web.

For the record, judicial candidates adjusting and even changing their names is not new. Judge Joelle Ober has run under her middle name, Ann, so people know she’s a woman. Attorney Leland Baldwin once legally added the middle name Anne. Years ago, a Pinellas judge wondered if his challenger — a man called Jan — was being deliberately disingenuous about his gender.

And not just here: Earlier this year, the Chicago Tribune reported that Phillip Spiwak, who previously made an unsuccessful run for judge, was now stumping under his new name, Shannon P. O’Malley. perhaps getting both the Irish and female edge.

Isaak says some people call him Eilam, others Michael. So why E. Michael on the ballot, where he’s running against fellow attorneys Jack Gutman, LaShawn Strachan and Lanell Williams-Yulee?

"I don’t want people to discriminate against me because of the ethnicity of my first name," Isaak says. "I wanted to be judged by my record and my legal experience." Michael is "more generic," he says.

He is the son of immigrant parents who came from Israel, his website says. He attended a synagogue growing up, but has been attending his wife’s church, the well-known conservative Idlewild Baptist, for eight years. Idlewild appears in his literature and on his website.

Does Michael stand a better chance than Eilam, even now?

It’s all about knowing your audience, I guess.