For 22 years, C. Merritt Pumphrey's job as clerk of the Circuit Court has been under lock-and-key, but the past year has brought forth a development seldom seen in the county election spectrum.
Pumphrey, whose past opponents have never gathered more than 39 percent of the vote, is facing tough opposition from a challenger looking to bring controversy into a traditionally low-key contest.
Margaret Rappaport, a 55-year-old former school teacher who has openly criticized what she calls "The Merritt System" of running the clerk's office, is hoping to put Pumphrey out of business.
"He's been in there 22 years, but it's more like one year of experience repeated 22 times," says Rappaport, a Republican who accuses Pumphrey of being a negligent and poor leader. "His attitude is devastating to the court. He believes he's untouchable."
But Pumphrey, whose past four-year term was perhaps his most controversial, accuses Rappaport of "beating the bushes to find some kind of an issue" in an office that he says is devoid of political excitement.
Rappaport has focused on two controversies that emerged in Pumphrey's latest term, in which the 65-year-old Democrat has been accused of racially unfair hiring practices and, most recently, of failing to deputize an assistant clerk who later performed hundreds of marriage ceremonies.
The marriage clerk matter became a widely-publicized issue -- unfairly so, says Pumphrey -- when the legitimacy of the weddings came into question. The state attorney general eventually declared the marriages valid, although Rappaport says the incident highlights Pumphrey's inefficiency.
"He knew it was illegal, but he did it anyway, because he didn't think he'd have to answer to anyone," said Rappaport, the wife of former county Police Chief Paul Rappaport.
Pumphrey called the marriage controversy "strictly political and a big smoke screen about nothing." The issue comes down to a technicality that would have never come about had there been clearer instruction in state guidelines for marriages, he said.
The Circuit Court clerk is in charge of a 40-person, $1.6-million office that is responsible for record-keeping of all criminal and civil matters.
The office records all divorces, child support and juvenile cases, as well as land deeds, mortgage transactions and election results.
The job pays $43,500 a year.
Pumphrey says this year's election is the first in which his opponent put together a high-profile campaign. Rappaport says her campaign, in which she has openly attacked Pumphrey, has been well-received from voters in area villages and shopping centers.
In 1987, Pumphrey came under fire from the county Human Rights Commission for not employing enough black workers, another issue that he says has been politicized in the election campaign.
Pumphrey said his plans call for the hiring of eight minorities in the next 16 vacancies, although a government hiring freeze has stopped that plan in midstream. Four black employees were hired before the freeze went into effect, with one recently quitting, he said.
Pumphrey said the Human Rights Commission unfairly singled him out for his hiring practices, which he defends as being systematic and conducted on a first-come, first-served basis.
The lack of minorities in hiring was because of a substantial lack of minority applications, Pumphrey said.
"I kept a pile of applicants, and if I had an opening, I'd call one of the viable applicants from the pile," Pumphrey said. "I didn't advertise because I didn't feel we needed a larger pool of applicants. I don't see why a minority candidate can't come in and just fill out an application just like everyone else."
Rappaport also criticized Pumphrey for failing to address "a lack of morale" in the clerk's office. Fifteen workers had approached Rappaport about running, she said.
Rappaport said that if elected, she will establish a task force to look at the leadership structure of the office and where it may be improved.
"I'm not going to go in like a gangbuster, but I want to know what it is that I can change if I have to," she said.
Pumphrey says he is in favor of a proposal to put the 24 court clerks' offices under the control of the judiciary, rather than the executive branch that currently oversees them. Such a change should lead to more sympathetic treatment of the offices, which he says have been overlooked in the past.
"We should be in the hands of judges, not the comptroller," said Pumphrey, who said the current hiring freeze could be thawed under the proposed plan.
Pumphrey became clerk in 1968, when he replaced the retired Harvey Hill.
He formerly ran an Ellicott City auto dealership.
Rappaport taught in public schools in Howard and Anne Arundel County for 11 years. She has also worked as a paralegal in her husband's law firm.
In 1986, she was elected to judge of the county's Orphan's Court, although she resigned from the job in February.