Diaz wins judical election

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 21, 2000

AP and staff reports

From staff and wire reports

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz fended off a challenge by Circuit Judge Keith Starrett of McComb in a runoff election to keep his seat on the state’s highest court Tuesday.

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With 96 percent of the precincts reporting in unofficial returns, Diaz had 52 percent of the vote, leading Starrett by nearly 4,000 votes. As expected, Diaz picked up much of his support from the populous Gulf Coast counties.

Diaz also beat Starrett in Adams County — but turnout, said county officials, was dismal.

Diaz received 1,894 votes, or 53.78 percent, to Starrett’s 1,625 votes, or 46.14 percent. There were three write-in votes. Only 3,522 of 22,773 registered voters actually cast votes in Tuesday’s election, for a turnout of just 15.47 percent.

&uot;There was simply no interest,&uot; said Circuit Clerk M.L. &uot;Binkey&uot; Vines.

Bob Barrett, chairman of the Adams County Election Commission, said he actually expected a smaller turnout of 10 to 12 percent.

&uot;But here you have two (candidates) who are not even known by most voters, and in an election that is basically non-partisan,&uot; Barrett said.

But Vines said his office will work to get more people involved in the election process during the next three and a half years.

&uot;We’re working hard to register people to vote and will use this office to educate more people&uot; on the election process, he said.

Other than the low turnout, the election in Adams County went smoothly, with no major problems reported, Barrett said.

Diaz was the top vote getter in the Nov. 7 election, but he did not have enough votes to win outright. Diaz faced Starrett in a runoff for an eight-year term representing south Mississippi.

In March, Diaz, 40, of Biloxi, then a state Court of Appeals judge, was appointed by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove to the Supreme Court.

The race has received more attention than past state judicial elections because of a legal battle over television commercials. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce ran sleek ads in support of Starrett and other judicial candidates.

Earlier this month, a federal judge ordered the chamber to make public spending in contests it weighed in on, including the Diaz-Starrett race.

The U.S. Chamber’s involvement has added spice to usually dull judicial elections in Mississippi. It also led to the most expensive judicial races ever in the state. Spending statewide is expected to top $2 million.

Diaz and Starrett have raised and spent about $300,000 each.

Despite the wrangling over the television commercials and endorsements, both candidates expected low voter turnout in the runoff. About a third of the voters who turned out in the Nov. 7 general election cast votes in the runoff.

Starrett, 48, got 31 percent in the general election by squeaking past Circuit Judge Billy Joe Landrum of Laurel, who got 30 percent.