Clerk Of Court Upset Brings End To Pumphrey's Era Rappaport Rides Wave Of Voter Discontent

November 11, 1990|By Michael James | Michael James,Staff writer

The job is not high-profile and the office can hardly be considered a hot spot, but for county residents, Tuesday's ousting of long-time Circuit Court Clerk C. Merritt Pumphrey should serve as a somewhat solemn reminder that everything ends sooner or later.

Pumphrey's decisive defeat by Margaret D. Rappaport marks the end of a 22-year stint in which the 65-year-old Democrat became a sturdy figure in county politics, beginning belatedly in the era of the Beatles and bitterly ending in the final days of Bobo.

Past challengers never gathered more than 39 percent of the vote against Pumphrey, who took over the office in 1968 after leaving his Ellicott City Jeep dealership. But his past term was perhaps his roughest, and Rappaport ran a sharply-critical -- and effective -- campaign.

Rappaport focused on two controversies that emerged in Pumphrey's latest four-year term, in which he was accused of racially unfair hiring practices and of a messy situation in which the legitimacy of his office's marriage ceremonies was called into question.

It appears those controversies hurt him, but he says he does not fault Rappaport for her critical approach throughout a campaign in which she blamed low morale in the clerk's office on "The Merritt System."

"She was out there working harder than anyone I'd ever run against," Pumphrey said of the 55-year-old former school teacher. "Anything's fair in love, politics and war. I accept that. She was out there doing what she had to so she could win."

Rappaport, a Republican and the wife of former Howard County police chief Paul Rappaport, gathered 52 percent of the vote compared to Pumphrey's 40 percent. Much of her support came from the 17 Ellicott City precincts, where she gathered 62 percent of the votes.

Pumphrey failed to compensate for his opponent's hometown support.

Rappaport won most of the Columbia precincts handily, while Pumphrey did not take any precinct by more than 100 votes.

As for whether his rocky recent term may have cost him, Pumphrey refused to say.

"All I can say is that I gave it my best shot for almost 25 years and I have nothing to be sorry about," he said. "I have no idea whether people have been satisfied with me or not. They obviously weren't satisfied."

Rappaport, a former teacher in Howard and Anne Arundel counties, said she got strong support from her followers and the Republican party. But even she admits that she was not optimistic about defeating the county's longest-standing incumbent.

Rappaport believes her campaign style had a lot to do with her victory.

"I was out meeting a lot of people and doing a lot of sign-waving. I was visible and people realized it was time for a change."

Ree O'Connor, one of Rappaport's campaign workers and the bar manager at P.J.'s Family Pub in Ellicott City, said the early sentiment around town was that Pumphrey could never be beaten.

"A lot of people came in the restaurant and said, 'Why is Marge doing this? She doesn't have a chance against this guy,' " O'Connor said. "It just shows what hard work can do. He wasn't unbeatable."

Pumphrey said he has no plans for the future, other than playing golf.

"I'm going to retire from state service," Pumphrey said. "I kept hearing that the morale of my office was low and I never thought it was. Well, now someone else can worry about it."

Rappaport says she has no definite plans in mind for the office, which she said is suffering from morale problems. Several of the employees in the office approached her about running against Pumphrey, she said.

"Good morale makes for good employees, and that's what I'm concerned with right now," Rappaport said. "I want to be a fair boss. I believe you should treat everyone like you would want to be treated yourself."

Much of her decision-making in the months ahead will be made after completing a task force study of the office.

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.

In 1987, Pumphrey came under fire from the county Human Rights Commission for not employing enough black workers in the office. He began a program for hiring minorities soon afterward.

But perhaps his most damaging brush with controversy came earlier this year when it became widely publicized that he failed to deputize an assistant clerk who later performed hundreds of marriage ceremonies.

The state attorney general eventually declared the marriages valid, although Rappaport keyed on the issue as indicative of poor decision-making in the Pumphrey administration.

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