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State attorney, public defender races wide open in Palm Beach County

From left, top: Democrats Craig Williams, Alexcia Cox, Gregg Lerman, Republican Sam Stern, Democrat Orlando Silva, Republican Forrest Freeman and unaffiliated Adam Farkas.
Stet News
From left, top: Democrats Craig Williams, Alexcia Cox, Gregg Lerman, Republican Sam Stern, Democrat Orlando Silva, Republican Forrest Freeman and unaffiliated Adam Farkas.

This story was updated on May 1, 2024.

The stage for a massive — and historic — shake-up in Palm Beach County’s criminal justice system is finally set.

For the first time in more than a decade, county voters will choose a new state attorney and, for the first time in more than two decades, they will also pick a new public defender.

It is rare, perhaps unprecedented, for both critical offices to be up for grabs in the same year.

“It’s unusual and it’s going to be interesting to see what happens,” said former Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath. While the state attorney is arguably one of the most powerful elected officials in the county, the public defender also plays a pivotal role in how justice is meted out.

While hopefuls have been on the campaign trail for months, with the close Friday of the weeklong qualifying period, the matchups are now officially in place.

Seven lawyers — four Democrats, three Republicans and one running with no party affiliation — qualified to replace three-term State Attorney Dave Aronberg. 

Public Defender Carey Haughwout and State Attorney Dave Aronberg are not seeking reelection.
Stet News
Public Defender Carey Haughwout and State Attorney Dave Aronberg are not seeking reelection.

Two attorneys, both Democrats, will vie to fill the public defender post the retiring Carey Haughwout has held for a record-setting 24 years.

Aronberg, a 52-year-old lifelong politician who has become a frequent contributor to cable TV news shows, said he would step down to explore unspecified opportunities.

Haughwout, 66, said it was time for new leadership.

Along with those vying to become the county’s two top criminal lawyers, candidates for judicial office and Congress qualified last week.

State attorney

The crowded state attorney’s race, which won’t be decided until November, promises to be costly and contentious, at least on the Democratic side.

The Democratic race pits two veteran assistant state attorneys, Alexcia Cox and Craig Williams, against former sheriff’s Capt. Rolando Silva and longtime criminal defense attorney Gregg Lerman.

Williams, who has headed the felony, organized crime, traffic homicide and white-collar crime units during his 26-year tenure, was blunt when asked about why he decided to run against his colleague.

He blamed Cox, who runs the domestic violence unit, for failing to prosecute accused batterers. Only 33% of those arrested for domestic violence are charged, he said.

“That means two out of every three victims of domestic violence, we do nothing to help,” Williams said. “We’re returning these people to their abusers. I find that unconscionable. I find that offensive.  … That’s why she shouldn’t be state attorney.”

Cox, who would become the county’s first Black and first female state attorney, declined to address Williams’ claims. However, for decades, prosecutors across the country have struggled with domestic violence cases. Many say they are forced to drop charges because victims refuse to testify against loved ones. Studies have shown that 80% to 90% of victims recant.

In an email, Cox focused on her credentials. She noted that Aronberg tapped her as a deputy chief assistant state attorney, making her part of his leadership team. She also mentioned the support she has received from a host of public officials.

“I can only speak to why I chose to run,” Cox said. “As state attorney, I will always work to improve and expand the services and resources we provide to the community so we can keep our neighborhoods safe and seek justice for victims.”

Lerman, who was the first to announce his candidacy, said he wants to reform the office. He said he was compelled to run for state attorney when he became convinced that prosecutors in 2022 knowingly allowed two men to lie to a jury about a murder-for-hire plot that sent his client to prison for life.

The office vehemently denied Lerman’s allegations and Circuit Judge Kirk Volker rejected them.

Silva, who calls himself “the law-and-order candidate,” is touting his unique credentials as both a lawyer and former lawman. In 2015, he also served as a special prosecutor in Aronberg’s office. Court records show he handled dozens of misdemeanor and criminal traffic cases, mostly DUIs.

If cash is any indication of support, Cox is way out in front.

She has raised $173,685 without reaching into her own pocket for cash, according to her most recent campaign finance report. Williams has $137,350, which includes $50,000 from his own wallet.

Silva is close behind with $134,285 to spend, including $75,000 of his own money. Lerman, who narrowly lost a bizarre judicial race in 2016, has raised $65,391.

On the Republican side, Sam Stern, a descendant of New Jersey legal royalty, is far ahead in fund-raising. Stern, who worked in the state attorney’s office from 2012 to 2014 before returning to the county in 2019 to open his own practice, has amassed $76,393, including $25,000 of his own cash.

Forrest Freedman, a Boca Raton lawyer, has raised $2,880 and pulled $400 from his own accounts.

A couple of years out of Fordham University Law school, Stern spent about a year as an assistant U.S. attorney in New Jersey. His 2009 appointment, which came as then U.S. Attorney Chris Christie was leaving the office to run for governor, sparked controversy. It was widely seen as a favor to Stern’s father, Herbert Stern, a former U.S. District Court judge and U.S. attorney, New Jersey newspapers reported at the time.

Prior to coming back to Palm Beach County, Stern also worked for the Miami office of the powerful global law firm Kobre & Kim. He helped the firm represent Juno Beach area retinologist Dr. Salomon Melgen, who in 2017 was convicted of 67 charges of health care fraud, sentenced to 17 years in prison and in 2020 was pardoned by then-President Donald Trump. Stern is also an adjunct professor at the University of Miami Law School.

While Stern started his own law firm in Palm Beach Gardens in 2019, he now works in the Palm Beach office of the New Jersey firm, Stern Kilcullen & Rufolo, which his father founded. Records show Sam Stern hasn’t been involved in any cases in Palm Beach County courts since he left the state attorney’s office a decade ago.

Freedman says he was a district attorney in Boston for four years and moved to the county in 1991. Records show he handles mostly traffic and some misdemeanor cases in county courts.

The six have until Aug. 20 to persuade members of their own parties to elect them. The winners of the partisan contests will advance to the Nov. 5 election.

Defense lawyer Adam Farkas, a former prosecutor and government public defender who has raised no money, will join them. Because he is running with no party affiliation, he won't appear on the ballot until November.

Daniel Eisinger, left, and Adam Frankel, both Democrats, are running for public defender.
Stet News
Daniel Eisinger, left, and Adam Frankel, both Democrats, are running for public defender.

Public defender

The public defender’s race pits Haughwout’s hand-picked successor, Chief Assistant Public Defender Daniel Eisinger, against former Delray Beach City Commissioner Adam Frankel.

Longtime Delray-area political powerbroker Andre Fladell said he is supporting Frankel, but didn't encourage him to run. 

Frankel, who practices mainly traffic law in his Delray office, became enamored with the job of representing those who can't afford lawyers when he worked as an assistant public defender from 1999 to 2001, Fladell said. But, Frankel wouldn't challenge Haughwout.

Either Frankel or Eisinger, who has been a public defender for 20 years, would be worthy replacements for Haughwout, who is respected by prosecutors and defense lawyers, Fladell said.

“Whether Dan Eisinger or Adam Frankel wins, I think the Public Defender’s Office will be in good hands,” he said.Because both Eisinger and Frankel are Democrats, the race will be decided in August.


All of the congressional races, save one, are heavily contested.

U.S. Reps. Brian Mast, R-Jupiter; Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach; and Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, all drew challengers from opposing parties. That means the races won’t be decided until November.

One of Moskowitz’s challengers is familiar to Palm Beach County voters. Former Democratic County Commissioner Robert Weinroth, who lost his 2022 bid for re-election, briefly flirted with a run for the school board and changed his party affiliation to Republican, is challenging Moskowitz to represent District 23, which includes the Coral Springs area and a slice of Palm Beach County.

The only House member to avoid the ballot box was U.S. Rep. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, D-Miramar. The only Haitian-American in Congress endured two contests in 2022 — a special and a regular election — after longtime Congressman Alcee Hastings died in 2021. While the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that hip-hop and rap artist Luther Campbell contemplated a run against her, he didn’t and neither did anyone else.


All 12 circuit judges and 10 county judges up for re-election were automatically swept back into office for six-year terms when no one filed to run against them.

Three lawyers will compete for the open seat held by retiring County Judge Ted Booras. Voters will choose from Palm Beach County School Board attorney Jean Marie Middleton and former prosecutors-turned defense attorneys Douglas Leifert and Lourdes Casanova. The race will be decided in August unless none gets more than 50% of the vote. Then, the two top vote-getters will face off in November.

This story was originally published by Stet News Palm Beach, a WLRN News partner.

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