The race for County Judge Group 5 is unlike most other elections because the nature of the job is impartiality.
Both Wesley Heidt, the incumbent, and Sara Howeller, his challenger, are registered Republicans — but they can’t tell you that. Likewise, the Republican Executive Committee of Volusia County cannot officially endorse either candidate.
What’s more, Florida law also prohibits judges and judicial candidates from talking to voters about any issue that could come before them in court.
That means that any campaign often boils down to one simple fact: experience. It’s a limitation the candidates acknowledge.
“It’s a tough format, because it really becomes a speaking résumé,” Judge Heidt told The Beacon.
This is the first election campaign Heidt has embarked on for judge, as he was nominated by a Judicial Nominating Committee and then appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to fill a vacancy left by the December 2021 retirement of Judge Dawn Fields.
Fields, for a the time, was the only African American judge in the circuit. Since then, two other Black women, Joan Anthony and Alicia Washington, were confirmed as circuit judges.
“The judicial ethics Canon 7 won’t let us comment on party affiliation, for instance, which is very, very frustrating to people who want to know. And, it won’t let us come out on any issues that are likely to come before the court,” candidate Howeller said. “What I try to tell people is that I’m hopeful that if they chat with me for a few minutes, they will get to know my character, what my experience is like.”
Both candidates have roughly the same amount of time invested in law, as both have more than 30 years of experience.
“If we’re both experienced, it’s in some ways, what have you done with that experience?” Heidt said.
Teasing out those nuances is exactly what both candidates are banking on with their campaigns.
While Howeller has extensive experience running her own practice and overseeing many different kinds of litigation, Heidt previously worked a nearly 27-year stint as bureau chief of the Florida Attorney General’s office in Daytona Beach, handling criminal appellate cases and advising the State Attorney’s Office.
Howeller’s varied experience — and the fact that Heidt was appointed, rather than elected — are two of Howeller’s main points.
“While I’ve been practicing for about the same amount of time as my opponent has been, my experience is different. My experiences are more varied,” she said. “I’ve litigated every kind of case. I’ve litigated in a lot of different counties and a lot of different courtrooms. And I think that that gives me the ability to sort of see what works and what doesn’t work.”
Howeller made it clear that she has nothing against her opponent.
“I can tell you I have nothing personal against or frankly, nothing really bad to say about Judge Heidt. It’s not a matter of coming after him. It’s more a matter of, I’m at a point in my life and my career where I have the luxury of being able to look at public service,” Howeller said. “But I do think that people have a right to choose who their judges are going to be … people have a right to choose who they want to serve.”
Heidt, however, argues his longtime community involvement in Volusia County, as well as his time supervising an office of more than 30 employees with the Attorney General, helped him hit the ground running as a judge.
“It’s not just the experiences … it’s also engaging the community because, as a county judge, it’s the people’s court. And the people — a lot of people in front of me are self-represented pro se, and don’t have an attorney,” Heidt said.
He pointed out that he also has experience managing the workload, including dealing with the backlog caused when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the system for a time.
“I came into a docket that was pushing almost 4,000 active cases, and again, most of that caused by the COVID,” he said.
That backlog has now been whittled to about 2,800 cases, Heidt said.
In addition to years of experience and a variety of certifications, Heidt pointed to his appointment as president of the Volusia Bar, as well as a 20-year teaching gig at Daytona State College in the paralegal program, and volunteer work as a coach with local baseball and softball programs.
“There’s 106,000 lawyers [in Florida], but it’s a different skill set to be a judge,” Heidt said. “It’s almost more like the umpire in sports — you’re not playing the game. You’re moderating it and making sure the rules are followed.”
Both candidates emphasized the importance of county judges, who can see thousands of cases a year, and those judges’ interactions with the public.
“Every judge’s goal is to follow the law — that’s what our role is — but especially in County Court, which is a lot of the time the first exposure that people have to the judicial system, and sometimes the only exposure,” Howeller said. “To somebody who’s involved in even a small-claims process, that lawsuit is every bit as important to them … I think that it’s really important that people feel as if they can come to the county court system and have their issues resolved or at least heard in an expeditious and user-friendly way.”
“Each time you do something and engage the community, I think it makes you a more complete person. I bring all that to the process,” Heidt said. “The love of people is a great fit for county court because you need to listen to people. You need to respect their time, and then ultimately sort out the facts and then apply the law and follow the law.”
Follow the money
As of Aug. 8, Heidt had a war chest of $59,230 and had spent $43,466. He has put $35,000 of his own funds into the race; the remainder has come from a wide variety of individuals in different fields, as well as attorneys and law firms.
Howeller had $29,750 and had spent $19,105. She put $25,000 of her own funds into the campaign. The remainder has come from a small pool of individuals and attorneys.
For more information on judicial races provided by the Florida Bar, including frequently asked questions and candidate statements, visit The Florida Bar website HERE.