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State Attorney Angela Corey
Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Jun. 7, 201612:00 PM EST

Closed primary for state attorney and public defender draws wildly different reactions

by: David Chapman

The outcry from certain 4th Judicial Circuit voting blocs was almost immediate when attorney Kenny Leigh filed for the state attorney’s race.

A sham candidacy, it was accused. A cheap political trick meant to disenfranchise non-Republicans who can’t vote because Leigh filed as a write-in the same day as attorney Melissa Nelson, who pundits consider a formidable challenger to incumbent Angela Corey.

It was Corey’s campaign manager at the time who filed Leigh’s documents.

When Leigh told The Florida Times-Union he was a Corey supporter, it was enough for some. A lawsuit was filed.

The state attorney’s race isn’t the only legal battle closed on the August ballot. The public defender’s race is, too. It’s a contest that was closed due to a write-in candidate with ties to incumbent Matt Shirk. But there has been no loud outcry, no legal wrangling.

“It’s literally the exact same thing,” said Michael Binder, emphasizing the word “exact.” He is a University of North Florida public opinion research lab professor.

That race’s write-in candidate, attorney Roland Falcon, told the Times-Union Shirk is doing a good job.

Falcon did not return calls Friday or Monday, but told Florida Politics after filing in early May he was trying to build name recognition in hopes of becoming a judge one day. He said then he wasn’t particularly interested in winning.

Shirk said he and Falcon don’t have much of a relationship and he nor anyone in his campaign was involved with getting Falcon to run.

“I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw or talked to Mr. Falcon,” Shirk said Monday.

Leigh declined comment to the Daily Record on Friday because of the lawsuit. It was filed seeking to open the race because of his “sham” candidacy, according to the complaint.

“It’s entirely a political tactic,” Binder said of Leigh’s filing. “And it’s a great political tactic.”

He said closing the primary closes off the vote to some of Corey’s loudest critics in the Democrat and African-American communities, making the path to victory for her a little smoother.

Circuit Judge Jim Daniel is expected to rule on the case in the next day or so.

But what about the Public Defender race? It’s had no lawsuit filed on its behalf and much of the focus has been on its legal counterpart.

The sometimes-controversial Corey being involved is part of it, said Binder. Another part he described as a “smoking gun” was her campaign manager at the time — also a Republican state committeeman — filing for Leigh. The perception of Corey’s office and how it charges and how it impacts people’s lives is another reason, he said.

Shirk said he hasn’t kept up with the state attorney’s race situation, but if it somehow impacts his race “we will go from there.”

He said he did well with all types of voters, including Democrats, in past elections and has been active in the community since.

Public defender candidate Charles Cofer said he didn’t know why the other race seems to generate more attention, other than the personalities involved. The situations are the same, he said, and what Daniel decides could have an impact on his own race if a similar lawsuit were filed after.

Cofer, a former county judge, said he thought an open primary would benefit him more, as Shirk would not “stand up well to the whole community.”

A grand jury in 2014 called for Shirk’s resignation for inappropriate behavior with female staff members and other issues.

There could be another culprit contributing to the situation. In an all-Republican field, the lack of a Democrat challenger is an indictment on the local party itself, said Binder.

However, it isn’t a new phenomenon — Democrats don’t always challenge in other legislative races, either, he said.

Binder thinks it could be from poor management, a party that’s been in “absolute tatters” since the failed re-election efforts of former Mayor Alvin Brown.

Duval County Democratic Party Chair Neil Henrichsen did not return calls Friday or Monday.

“They need to do better,” said Binder. “You have to run candidates in every race … you don’t have to be Kennedy or FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt), but you have to have someone to vote for.”

If the primary remains closed in these races — and given Florida Supreme Court rulings in the past, Binder believes they will — then the only option for non-Republicans to vote would be to switch parties.

It’s a step Corey said last month people should take if they’re angry about the situation — and hundreds have since early May when the primary for both races was closed.

According to the Supervisor of Elections offices in Clay, Duval and Nassau counties — the three comprising the 4th Circuit — more than 750 people did in May.

In Clay, 146 people switched to Republican from May 5-June 3. In Nassau, 169 people did during the same time period. Records in Duval for the month of May show 461 people made the switch.

Binder said there’s too much empirical evidence to show the tactic doesn’t work enough to influence outcomes.

Sam Jacobson, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the state attorney’s race case, said the idea is “deplorable.”

“Changing parties is not like changing clothes,” he said.

If people follow through, they disqualify themselves from other primary races that matter, he said.

“It’s not as if this is the only race on the ballot,” he said.

Jacobson is right. There’s a race for public defender, too.

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