BARTOW – Nearing the end of her second six-year term, incumbent Judge Susan Barber faces a formidable challenge in Michael McDaniel, who is campaigning to fill her seat in Polk County’s judicial election on Aug. 30.
While sitting judges may be perceived as holding a built-in advantage, in this case Barber may get a run for her money. McDaniel, who resides in Winter Haven, offers a worldly perspective coupled with extensive public service, bringing abundant energy and a strong desire for reform to his platform.
Barber’s tenure has not always been a walk in the park. In late 2014 she was publicly reprimanded by the Florida Supreme Court for openly conducting a relationship with Bailiff James "Bubba" Maxcy III, her subordinate in the system – and in the same courtroom, no less.
“(Her) relationship with Maxcy went beyond the fraternization that normally occurs in a professional workplace context,” stated a March 2015 article in theledger.com.
McDaniel, 46, thinks the public is ready for a change, and that he is the candidate to effect that transformation. While a third candidate is officially on the books – former assistant state attorney Carson Bassett, 33, of Lakeland – McDaniel is highly optimistic about his chances, recently describing his goals in detail for the Florida Record.
“I think my preferred attributes of a judge mirror what most people want: integrity, experience, temperament and fairness,” McDaniel told the Florida Record. “Integrity and a commitment to public service are a part of my identity. I’ve been able to pack a tremendous amount of very diverse experience into the over 20 years I’ve been a lawyer.”
With degrees from the University of South Florida and Nova Southeastern University’s Shepard Broad Law Center, McDaniel has also actively volunteered for civic and fundraising entities such as local sports teams and the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life.
For nearly a decade, he also served his country with overseas deployment. McDaniel stated that his military experience played a very important part in his decision to run for judge.
“9/11 was the catalyst for change in my life, just as it was for most Americans,” he said. “I realized almost immediately that although America had been very good to me, I had not made any real sacrifices. I would say that was the point where I was bitten by the 'public service' bug.”
At that point, he left his law practice to enlist in the U.S. Army. While deployed overseas, he handled a variety of tasks, from training local soldiers and serving on battalion staff in Iraq to taking supervisory positions in Afghanistan, where he educated anti-terrorism judges and attorneys.
“Here at home, I’ve handled hundreds of civil, family law, criminal, real estate and appellate cases throughout Florida,” McDaniel said. “Finally, I’ve run my own business for years. I believe diverse life experiences make better judges because it gives them a wide pool to draw from when making decisions that affects people’s lives.”
With experience lending the greatest strength to his candidacy, what unique characteristics would he bring to office? McDaniel places integrity as paramount to the position. While he has focused on litigation through his own law practice in Bartow –“because I enjoy being in the courtroom” – he also reiterated that should he win, his firm will move forward in the direction that he started.
“I’ve been really fortunate in that I’ve been able to handle so many different types of cases across Florida,” the candidate said. “I firmly believe that courtroom experience is a necessary criterion for a judge.”
As far as his canvassing strategy, McDaniel offered that voters ought to be able to make informed decisions, and “the only way to do that is if they know who the candidates are, why they’re running and what they bring to the table. I’d like to speak to any group that wants to know more about me.”
To that end, McDaniel said, he is relying partly on social media, but largely on close, supportive friends who are helping him reach constituents.
“This is very much a grassroots campaign, which is exactly how I prefer it,” he said.
The 10th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida – serving Hardee, Highland and Polk counties – is comprised of 12 County judges. County judges, who are often assigned to work as circuit judges, are paid $138,020 a year and serve a six-year term.