"What we're trying to do," said the county's chief prosecutor, "is avoid a hostile takeover by the public defender's office."
With that, Frank Weathersbee got a laugh from the audience of 140 lawyers. Facing his first election since being appointed county state's attorney two years ago, Weathersbee was debating Timothy D. Murnane, a former public defender gunning for his job.
If Murnane's coup attempt is not hostile, it is, at the least, irreverently aggressive. His style has mellowed only slightly since last summer, when he launched his assault by terming Weathersbee a perfect example of the "Peter Principle" -- a man who has reached his level of incompetence. Give the guy a gold watch and send him out to pasture, Murnane said then.
Now he chooses more restrained language, calling Weathersbee a "very rigid 21-year criminal law bureaucrat," a product of a Democratic stranglehold on the office that hasn't been challenged in 16 years. Murnane carries his campaign in a file folder, a stack of documents and notes to back his claims that Weathersbee is a wimpy prosecutor and an unimaginative, complacent leader whose staff makes silly, avoidable errors that allow defendants to walk.
Weathersbee, noting his office handles 20,000 cases a year, dismisses Murnane's list of botched cases as desperate nit-picking. And drawn into battle, or perhaps heading off any suggestion of a wimp factor, Weathersbee calls Murnane a glib chatterbox who simply has no idea how the prosecutor's office operates.
He says Murnane is an opportunist who only decided to run for state's attorney when it became clear he wasn't going to get the district public defender's job. His only claim to fame is being Republican county executive nominee Robert R. Neall's brother-in-law, Weathersbee has said.
The bottom line, in Weathersbee's mind: Murnane has not prosecuted a single case. In endorsing Weathersbee, a local police lodge wrote, "We note with concern that Frank's opposition is an ex-public defender who has devoted his career to keeping criminals out of jail while Frank has devoted his to putting criminals in jail."
Murnane's response: "I can beat the defense bar at their own game."
Murnane's candidacy was a bit of a surprise. The assistant public defender had been a rumored candidate last year, but when no other opponents stepped forward and Democratic North County politicians endorsed Weathersbee a full year before the election, the incumbent looked to be in position for an uncontested election.
Weathersbee, 46, of Annapolis, was hired as an assistant state's attorney in 1969. From 1977 to 1988 he was deputy state's attorney in charge of the office's day-to-day operations. County judges unanimously appointed him to replace Warren B. Duckett Jr., the Democrat whose 14-year tenure as county state's attorney ended only when he was made a Circuit Court judge.
While Duckett was an unabashed political animal and vote-gathering machine as state's attorney, Weathersbee makes no attempt to hide his lack of enthusiasm for campaigning.
"I'm about as non-political as you can get in a political job," he said.
Weathersbee has been endorsed by the county's 500-member Fraternal Order of Police, the 2,000-member Maryland Troopers Association and the 1,500-member Anne Arundel Volunteer Firemen's Association.
He also claims the support of more than 200 attorneys in the county, but some attorneys complained of a newspaper ad run Monday that included their names. At least two attorneys said they signed on to support Weathersbee when he had no opponent, but were now supporting Murnane. Weathersbee said he sent everyone on the list a letter in September, allowing them a chance to withdraw their name.
Weathersbee had raised about $60,000 through Oct. 26, a campaign finance report shows. Though $18,000 went to fund-raising expenses, he has spent $24,000 on campaign materials, advertising and contributions toward Democratic ticket literature.
Murnane, who at the outset of his campaign said he hoped to raise $50,000, has raised $13,630, campaign reports show.
Murnane, 37, of Davidsonville, was an assistant public defender in the county from 1981 until he resigned in July after filing to run for state's attorney. He, too, is a political novice, but has taken to the fight as if it was a juicy courtroom skirmish. He opens that file folder and states his case.
He begins by citing 10 cases lost by county prosecutors for failing to bring defendants to trial within 180 days of their initial appearance. In all, he says he knows of 25 cases lost because prosecutors mistakenly placed them on an inactive docket and concludes there must be plenty more in which he wasn't personally involved.
Murnane says he would improve the computer tracking of cases to avoid such mistakes. Weathersbee said, "When you look at the long list of charges, he's found a few cases he knows something about. He hasn't found any problems that are systemic."