Coast votes give Diaz court edge

Published 6:00 am Wednesday, November 22, 2000

A late charge from one of Keith Starrett’s home counties was notenough to catapult the judge from the circuit court bench to thestate Supreme Court Tuesday in a runoff for the high courtseat.

Starrett, circuit judge for Lincoln, Pike and Walthall counties,received 3,604 Lincoln County votes, which were among the last tobe reported in the district.

However, that was not enough to overtake incumbent Oliver Diaz’slead in the 27-county south Mississippi supreme court district. InLincoln County voting, Diaz received 762 votes.

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With all precincts reporting in unofficial returns, Diaz had 51percent of the vote to lead Starrett by nearly 3,000. The totalswere 56,453 for Diaz and 53,606 for Starrett.

Lincoln County Circuit Clerk Terry Case Watkins said local voteshad to be hand-counted because the vote-counting machine companysent the wrong computer board. The county recently purchased a newmachine, and the company sent software for the old machine, shesaid.

Election commissioners and officials finished counting votesaround 10 p.m. Tuesday. The total 4,366 votes cast representedabout an 18 percent turnout in Lincoln County.

As expected, Diaz picked up much of his support from thepopulous Gulf Coast counties while Starrett was strong in southwestMississippi.

”I’m relieved,” Diaz said Tuesday night. ”It was a very closerace.”

Diaz was the top vote getter in the Nov. 7 election, but he didnot have enough votes to win outright. Supreme court judge serveeight-year terms.

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

The race has received more attention than past state judicialelections because of a legal battle over negative televisioncommercials. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce ran sleek ads in supportof Starrett and other judicial candidates.

Earlier this month, a federal judge ordered the chamber to makepublic its spending on contests it weighed in on, including theDiaz-Starrett race. In Mississippi, where the chamber’sadvertisements supported four Supreme Court candidates, two won andtwo lost.

The U.S. Chamber’s involvement has added spice to usually dulljudicial elections in Mississippi. It also led to the mostexpensive judicial races ever in the state. Spending statewide isexpected to top $2 million.

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

Diaz said he believed the chamber’s ads helped him win.

”I got many comments from folks who said that they didn’t likethe negative ads and they appreciated that I didn’t run any,” hesaid.

Starrett disagreed the chamber ads were that big a factor.

”I don’t think they had much influence at all,” he said,adding that while the ads helped him develop some name recognition,voters didn’t believe them.

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

Starrett, 48, got 31 percent in the general election bysqueaking past Circuit Judge Billy Joe Landrum of Laurel, who got30 percent.