Judges' race quickly takes political turn Candidates spending money, hiring campaign consultants

'Dynamics so different'

2 Circuit appointees of Gov. Glendening face three challengers

January 17, 1996|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

Because of an editing error, yesterday's editions of The Sun for Howard County incorrectly referred to Columbia attorney Jonathan Scott Smith as a judge. He is running for a seat on the Howard Circuit Court bench.

* The Sun regrets the error.

The Circuit Court judges' race in Howard County has become so political so fast that longtime political observers are unsure how the electorate will respond.

Practices that in past years might have seemed tawdry for sitting or would-be judges -- sign-waving at intersections, high // powered television commercials, party endorsements and the raising and spending of huge amounts of money -- are de rigueur this year.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Moreover, four of the five candidates are expected to raise and spend more than $100,000 before the March 5 primary, making this the most expensive judicial race in Howard County history.

Only attorney Jay Fred Cohen, a Columbia resident whose law office is in Pikesville, is not planning a fund-raiser. However, a friend paid the cost of printing 40,000 brochures for him.

Mr. Cohen, District Court Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and Columbia attorney Jonathan Scott Smith are seeking to oust newly appointed Circuit Court Judges Diane O. Leasure and Donna Hill Staton in the March 5 primary.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening appointed Judge Leasure and Judge Hill Staton circuit judges in November as part of his goal of gender and racial diversity on the bench.

Judge Leasure became the county's first female circuit judge, Nov. 13. Judge Hill Staton became the county's first black circuit judge Nov. 20.

The two judges collected an estimated $40,000 last week at their person fund-raiser in Columbia. And checks are still coming in, said Columbia attorney Thomas M. Meachum, their campaign treasurer.

Challengers Gelfman and Judge Smith raised $12,200 at a $35-a-person affair in Columbia in December. They are planning add to that with a $60-a-person bull roast Feb. 10 at Turf Valley Country Club.

The roast will feature former Baltimore Colts defensive tackle Art Donovan as master of ceremonies.

Until this year, modest campaigning on a limited budget was the rule in Howard County's judicial elections. Judgeships were contested but never like this.

"The dynamics in this race are so different from anything else we've known," said Brad Coker, a nationally known pollster living in Columbia. "The voters are not used to them and all the local officials don't know how to handle this thing. Nobody knows what's going on."

On Monday, Judge Gelfman and Judge Smith announced they have hired Pennsylvania communications specialist Donald G. Raymond "to provide professional expertise in coordinating television ads and direct mail."

Mr. Raymond was political director for former U.S. Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania.

"Our hiring of Don Raymond is an intensified step in our effort to reach each and every voter in Howard County," said Ellicott City attorney Betty Smith Adams, campaign director for the Gelfman-Smith team.

Ms. Adams said she expects to begin airing campaign ads on cable television Feb. 5, but is "not certain" whether those ads will feature television personality Dick Gelfman, the husband of Judge Gelfman.

Judges Leasure and Hill Staton hired their political consultants -- Howard County Republican Carol Arscott and the Mason-Dixon Campaign Polling & Strategy Inc., her Annapolis political consulting firm -- early. They also expect to begin airing television ads soon.

Meanwhile, Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith are going out from 7 a.m. to 8:15 a.m. each day, holding signs and waving at cars at intersections throughout the county.

Sign waving "is an essential publicity tool in a good campaign," Mr. Smith said in a statement released by his campaign staff. "We want to show the voters that our dedication to them demands that we stand outside on these frosty mornings in order to ensure that we reach out to all the voters."

Judges Leasure and Hill Staton will not be doing any sign-waving, said Lin Eagan, a Columbia real state agent serving as their campaign manager.

"They are in the office each morning before 8 a.m.," she said. "Sign-waving may be effective [in getting name recognition], but it's not very judicial."

Ms. Eagan said she was "delighted" that judges Leasure and Hill Staton recently received a unanimous "letter of support" from the local Democratic Central Committee.

But Gelfman-Smith supporters said the committee overstepped its bounds when it shared the letter with news media Monday.

Former Democratic Central Committee chairman Alex Adams, an Ellicott City attorney supporting Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith, denounced the committee's action as "untoward, unusual and unprecedented."

Never before has the Democratic Central Committee chosen to endorse one Democrat over another in a contested primary race, he said.

"There are four Democrats in the race," Mr. Adams said -- Mr. Cohen, Ms. Gelfman, Ms. Hill Staton, and Ms. Leasure -- but committee members "have decided to support two."

Mr. Cohen said he was unperturbed by the letter.

"Who else [would the committee support] other than somebody appointed by the governor," he said. "It's exactly what I would expect."

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