After eight years out of the public spotlight, former state House Speaker Johnnie Byrd of Plant City is trying for a comeback in public service, running for a circuit judgeship.
Byrd, one of the county's most controversial political figures, is challenging Circuit Judge Mark Wolfe based on criticism of his performance on the bench, which Wolfe and his backers vehemently deny.
Byrd has been practicing law in Plant City since his legislative career ended eight years ago and he lost a U.S. Senate primary bid.
Byrd said he decided to run because, "I prayed about it and thought about it and I realized that (law and the judicial system) had been my whole career and that's where I could give back best."
Wolfe, an appointee of former Gov. Jeb Bush and four-year veteran as a county judge and eight as circuit judge, said his service and his two judicial appointments mean, "My knowledge, experience and temperament have been extensively investigated and tested."
Florida judgeships are nonpartisan, but a Byrd-Wolfe race could be an interesting battle between candidates who are both Republicans, but will likely have different support bases.
As of March 31, Wolfe had raised $27,275 in campaign money, most from lawyers and law firms, including some Democrats.
Byrd, who didn't file for the office until April 2, hasn't filed a campaign expense report. His campaign website lists a committee of supporters that is heavily Republican, including virtually all the top officers of the county Republican Party, dominated by East Hillsborough conservatives.
As a state House member from 1996 to 2004, and speaker from 2002 to 004, Byrd was a prominent leader of the conservative side of the state GOP and a dominant force in East Hillsborough.
He ran for the Senate while serving as speaker, but fared poorly in the 2004 Republican primary, receiving 5.9 percent of the vote among three well-known and five lesser-known candidates.
Byrd returned to his Plant City law practice and comparative obscurity, except for controversy over what is now the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer's Institute, one of his top legislative priorities.
As House speaker, Byrd was accused by colleagues of divisiveness, a dictatorial management style and using his power to advance his Senate campaign and retaliate against lawmakers who disagreed with him.
A 2004 Tampa Tribune interview in which he compared legislators to "sheep … looking for someone to tell them what to do" cost Byrd popularity.
When that year's legislative session ended, lobbyists mocked him by passing out sheep masks in the Capitol. Legislators voiced bitter criticism, and several who had endorsed him in the Senate primary withdrew their support.
Byrd said the criticism arose because of his strict adherence to small-government conservatism.
"The only people that are unhappy with me are the ones who are for higher taxes, who want more government regulations, people who don't believe in family values," Byrd told The Associated Press after the session ended.
"In Tallahassee, if the lobbyists are unhappy and if the liberal media is unhappy, that means we're doing something right for the conservative values in Florida."
He had pushed through legislation founding the Alzheimer's center, originally independent of the University of South Florida and named the Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer's Center, after his father.
Critics charged that millions in tax money was used for a personal legacy, noting that Byrd's father was from Alabama. The Legislature later took control of the center's board, and it was renamed and made part of USF.
Byrd said he is not seeking a "political comeback," emphasizing the nonpartisan nature of judicial races, in which candidates aren't allowed to attend party forums.
"I've been a practicing lawyer for 35 years, and I've spent all my time in the judicial system except for my foray into the political realm," he said. "That's my first love, practicing law, general practice, helping people."
Byrd said if he wins, he doesn't expect to run for any other office in the future.
Byrd accused Wolfe, who sat on the Plant City court until last year, of not being unavailable to lawyers to schedule conferences and hearings, and of complaining about his workload.
Byrd criticized a voice-mail message he said he heard on Wolfe's office phone saying the office was closed on a Friday and that callers should call back on Monday.
"I had practiced before him and knew I could do a better job than he could, be more available, more prepared, more professional courtesy, work harder, be more organized and have a more user-friend attitude," he said.
"For lawyers, time is money and predictability and consistency is money."
Byrd, a graduate of Auburn University and the University of Alabama School of Law, moved to Florida in 1988.
According to his financial disclosure form, he earned $81,157 last year from his law practice, along with $5,163 from his pension as a state legislator.
The judgeship pays $142,178.
Bush appointed Wolfe as a county judge in 2000 and circuit judge in 2004.
Wolfe said the appointments include vetting and interviewing by the Judicial Nominating Commission, which nominates candidates for judgeships to the governor.
He said he was puzzled by Byrd's criticism.
"Mr. Byrd would come by our office regularly and never indicated he had any trouble getting court time," he said. "We routinely added court time and worked extra hours when it was necessary," he said. "I'm sure the Plant City police would verify I stayed extra hours for arrest and search warrants."
Wolfe said his judicial assistant sometimes comes into court with him to organize dockets and orders on days when he hears many short cases, such as divorces, leaving the phone on voice mail.
He said that enables him to expedite the cases and get parties their orders the same day, important in divorce cases. His assistant would leave the phone on voice mail and return the calls as soon as possible, he said.
Wolfe is a graduate of Notre Dame and the University of Miami School of Law and has practiced in Florida since 1981.
Prominent Tampa lawyer Tom Scarritt, a Democrat once appointed by Byrd to a local judicial election oversight commission, and who now backs Wolfe, scoffed at Byrd's criticism.
Scarritt said he has appeared before Plant City judges, often representing the city of Plant City.
"He's a very good judge," he said. "People are kind of scratching their heads, wondering why Johnnie Byrd picked him to run against."