Judicial novice is underdog candidate Conkling's opponents are 4 sitting judges on Circuit Court

January 15, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Daniel C. Conkling's fight to claim a seat on the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court bench is going to be uphill all the way.

His opponents have extensive legal experience and already hold the $93,600-a-year seats. Mr. Conkling has not been in a courtroom in a year and acknowledges he is better known as an accountant than as a man of the law.

"I recognize that's my weakness. I'm very candid about it. That's my Achilles' heel, but it doesn't mean that I'm not qualified," said Mr. Conkling, who is making his first run for elective office.

He hopes a well-planned political campaign, his reputation for integrity and his community service will help overcome perceptions that he is a legal lightweight.

In a county with at least 800 lawyers, he is the only challenger in the March 5 primary. His opponents for the four available 15-year terms are incumbents Clayton Greene Jr., Pamela Lee North, Martin A. Wolff and Eugene M. Lerner.

Judge Greene and Judge North, respectively the first black and the first woman on the circuit bench, were appointed last year. Judge Wolff and Judge Lerner were appointed in 1979.

Those familiar with the judicial election process say that unless an incumbent is controversial, a challenger has only a slim chance of winning.

"It's hard to do unless there's a real reason to run against a particular judge," said Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Bruce C. Williams, who is retiring in March.

Judge Williams won his seat by defeating Judge Karl Biener on Nov. 2, 1976. The Bar Association of Howard County, where Judge Biener also heard cases, came out against him that year.

Mr. Conkling said he may spend as much as $20,000 on his campaign, most of it likely to come from his own pocket. He expects few endorsements or campaign contributions, particularly from the county's lawyers.

"A lot of lawyers tell me they like me but they're not going to support me publicly because they have to practice in this county, and they have to appear before these judges," he said.

T. Joseph Touhey, a well-known Glen Burnie lawyer, has done business with Mr. Conkling for years.

"He's my accountant, I've known him 30 years and I like him as a person, but he's certainly not competent to be a judge," Mr. Touhey said. He said he has tried to talk Mr. Conkling out of running three times since he filed to run Dec. 26.

"It's the wrong decision for him. It will put him up for a lot of criticism, and if he got elected, it would be his worst nightmare," Mr. Touhey said. "The Judicial Disabilities Commission [which oversees judges] would eat him alive in six months."

Not everyone in the legal community shares that opinion.

"I'm not taking anything away from the other candidates, they're all qualified. But Dan Conkling's very competent, and there's no question he'd be a good judge," said Donald M. Lowman, who retired as a district judge in 1994.

Sara K. Arthur, president of the county bar association, said the group is polling its 800 members to see whether they want the association to make public endorsements in the race.

"We won't know for a few weeks," she said.

Candidates for judge in Maryland may cross-file, putting their names on the Democratic and Republican ballots. If Mr. Conkling is among the top four vote-getters on either ballot, he will move on to the general election Nov. 5, said Donna Duncan, administrative officer for the state board of elections.

In an interview last week, Mr. Conkling did not criticize the incumbent judges. But he said it is important that someone from outside the county's legal and political establishment enter the race.

The Pasadena Democrat was born in Baltimore and raised on a family farm in Weston, W.Va. After graduating from high school, he returned to Baltimore to study accounting at the Baltimore College of Commerce, which later merged with the University of Baltimore.

He earned a degree in accounting from the school in 1962 and a law degree from the University of Baltimore law school six years later. He has been licensed as a certified public accountant since 1965.

In 1970, he left the Baltimore accounting firm of Naron and Wagner to start his own accounting practice in Glen Burnie. His office is in the 100 block of Sixth Ave.

He has handled legal matters in Maryland district courts and in the federal court system, he said, but he declined to identify specific cases.

He was president of the Northern Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce in 1981 and was president of the Glen Burnie Jaycees from 1973 to 1974. The father of six serves on the school board at St. Jane Frances Roman Catholic School in Riviera Beach.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's stated desire to appoint more women and minorities to judgeships is one reason Mr. Conkling has decided to run, rather than wait for a judicial appointment.

"Lets face it, right now if you're not a minority, your chances of being selected, based on what the governor has said, are pretty low," he said. "I think it's good to give the voters a choice."

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