In primary aftermath, Circuit Court race may be Baltimore's only actual contest

September 29, 1990|By M. Dion Thompson

Throughout the primary season, the race for three judgeships on the Baltimore Circuit Court bench was pretty much a low-profile campaign, with the incumbent judges and their challengers running campaigns that took a back seat to other races in the city.

But now, with the other races in heavily Democratic Baltimore all but decided in the primary, the contest among three sitting judges from Circuit Court and one challenging judge from the the District Court is shaping up to be the only real contest of the Nov. 6 general election in Baltimore.

Unlike recent judicial elections, none of the incumbent judges -- Ellen L. Hollander, Richard T. Rombro and John C. Themelis -- is black. In those previous contests, when at least one of the sitting judges was black, Baltimore's black legal and political communities gladly backed the incumbents. Not so this year.

The campaign of Judge Paul A. Smith, the District Court challenger, has brought to the forefront the black community's concern about the judicial appointments made by Gov. William Donald Schaefer. In the past two years, the governor has appointed three judges to Baltimore Circuit Court, all of them white, and passed over Judge Smith each time.

In addition to criticizing the appointment process, Judge Smith's supporters also point to their candidate's experience and the fact that blacks are underrepresented on the Circuit Court bench.

At present, seven of the court's 23 judges are black, although the city's population is about 60 percent black.

What makes this campaign unusual is that it was not settled in the September primary, like most Baltimore political campaigns.

Running a strong campaign with the support of several of Baltimore'smajor black political organizations, Judge Smith edged out Judge Themelis in the Democratic primary, finishing third among five candidates. But because the candidates cross-file -- that is, they run in both Democratic and Republic primaries -- Judge Themelis survived by winning one of three spots in the usually insignificant Republican primary.

This means all four judicial candidates, including Judge Hollander, who swamped her nearest competitor by more than 10,000 votes, will again be on the ballot. They will be listed in alphabetical order and without party affiliations next to their names.

As they did in the primary, the sitting judges are running together and have the support of Governor Schaefer and most of the city's white political organizations. As he did in the primary, Judge Smith is running alone and counting on a heavy vote from the city's predominantly black precincts.

"The strategy of the campaign will shift only slightly to a more concentrated effort to get the voters to vote for me alone, and not vote for three," Judge Smith said. "That message was not articulated as well as it should have been, or at least if it was articulated, it was not understood to the degree that it should have been."

This strategy -- called "single shooting" -- is often employed by underdog candidates in races such as the judicial campaign in which a voter may vote for three choices. By single shooting, voters add one to the tally of the favored candidate but deny their vote to the tally of other candidates for whom they were also able to vote.

Single shooting was thought to be the reason behind Judge Hollander's unusually strong showing. In her case, however, it was women who were believed to have been doing the single shooting. Judge Hollander did not encourage the practice.

"If you look at the figures, the votes were there," Judge Rombro said of the primary. "It's just a question of all of us getting all of our people to support the entire ticket. That's what we want to happen. Each one of us. And if they do, we're going to win it."

Beyond putting greater emphasis on their respective voting strategies, the judges also will be poring over precinct breakdowns to see where they ran strong and where they ran weak.

Ed Smith Jr., a city attorney and one of Judge Smith's advisers, said the 42nd and 43rd Legislative districts -- roughly, Northwest, North and Northeast Baltimore -- are areas where Judge Smith's campaign could improve.

With nearly every other city race a foregone conclusion, there's no way to tell how many people will come out on Election Day. Judge Smith said the primary's low voter turnout was a "near disaster" for him.

But given the nature of this fall's election, increasing voter turnout won't be easy.

"It's a different atmosphere this time. There's nothing exciting to energize the electorate," said Judge Themelis. "That's a big problem for everyone."

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