At age 72, longtime Vero Beach resident Bruce Colton has decided to run next year for what would be his 10th term as the State Attorney of the 19th Judicial Circuit, which includes Indian River County.
Those who know him best – including Tom Bakkedahl, Colton’s chief assistant for the past 15 years and the man many believe will be his eventual successor as the region’s top prosecutor – aren’t at all surprised.
Bakkedahl even claimed credit for steering his boss away from retirement.
“From my perspective, somebody like Bruce is indispensable,” Bakkedahl said last Friday, sparing a few minutes from his preparations for the first-degree murder trial of Michael Jones this week in Vero Beach. “I know he’ll retire someday, but I keep telling him, ‘We need you.’
“He’s been the State Attorney here for how long? Since 1985?” he added. “Let me put that in perspective for you: I graduated from Martin County High School in 1984. You just can’t replace that kind of knowledge and experience, and the leadership he brings to the office.
“I hope he stays as long as he wants to.”
That could be a while: Colton, a self-described “career prosecutor” who joined the State Attorney’s Office in 1974, said he’s not even considering retirement.
Yes, he looks forward to playing golf on weekends and cherishes the time he spends with his 14 grandchildren. But he still enjoys his job and, by all accounts, remains good at it.
Not only has Colton managed to avoid the high turnover rates that plague so many State Attorney’s Offices – several of the lawyers who’ve left moved on to become judges – but his prosecutors win far more than they lose when they take cases to trial.
And while he has built a much-deserved, tough-on-crime reputation, Colton also has collaborated with other local agencies to establish mental health courts, veterans courts and separate drug courts for juveniles and adults.
These all have been remarkably effective in reducing new offenses among those who participate in the programs.
“We’re one of the few circuits in Florida that have all four of them,” Colton said. “We also offer a pre-trial diversion program for first-time offenders to give people arrested for less-serious crimes a chance to avoid having a criminal record.
“There’s a prevailing sentiment nationally that there should be less incarceration, and I don’t disagree – as long as we’re careful to not put the community at risk,” Colton said. “The goal is to put away the criminals who deserve it, but also offer options other than prison or jail time to address people who have issues and try to get them on the right track.
“That’s all part of the challenge of finding ways to more effectively and efficiently enforce the law.”
Colton said his health is good and he still goes to the office each day filled with a sense of purpose, a passion for the job and the energy needed to take on the challenges of his job.
Although he hasn’t tried a case in more than a decade – Colton said he has “very skilled and experienced attorneys” to handle the courtrooms – he enjoys the camaraderie he shares with his staff, including the younger lawyers he recruited, trained and continues to mentor.
He also has developed good working relationships with the sheriff’s offices, police departments and county commissioners in the circuit, which also includes St. Lucie, Martin and Okeechobee counties.
So, the decision to seek re-election in 2020 was easy.
“I certainly don’t feel the job has outgrown me or that the system has passed me by,” said Colton, whose office employs 54 attorneys and has an annual operating budget of $12 million.
“We’ve kept up with the times, and we’re continuing to make progress.
“It helps that I have an experienced staff that I love and have full confidence in and being around a lot of younger people keeps me young, too,” he added.
“I’m 72, but I’m not the oldest or longest-serving State Attorney currently serving in Florida.”
He’s probably among the most respected and well-liked, though.
Among Colton’s friends, in fact, is his legal-system opponent, Public Defender Diamond Litty, who worked for him as a prosecutor in the 1980s and whose husband, retired St. Lucie County Judge Tom Walsh, remains his golf buddy.
“For as long as I’ve known him, Bruce has loved the job and he’s been great at it,” Litty said. “He’s always been a hands-on leader who cares about the people who work for him and gets to know them. His esprit de corps fills that office.”
If Colton wins re-election – and it’s difficult to imagine anyone beating him, or even running against him – he said he doesn’t know if it would be his last term, but he’d likely make that decision four years from now.
“If he were bored or fed up or felt he couldn’t contribute,” Bakkedahl said, “then I think he’d retire.”
That’s obviously not the case, and that’s OK with Bakkedahl.
“I hope you’re not looking for me to say, ‘When do I get my chance?’” Bakkedahl said. “Bruce is a steady hand, and his presence here frees me up to do other things, including try cases. I don’t need the title.
“Would I want the job if he leaves?” he added. “Sure, but if he wants to be the State Attorney for life, I’m fine with that. I think the voters would be, too.”