Recognition may be key in judicial race Some believe Gelfman has advantage due to husband's TV image

Tough test for appointees

Incumbents' strategist says voters able to focus on candidates

February 05, 1996|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

Marshall Callier recently saw Dick Gelfman handing out campaign literature in front of an Ellicott City supermarket and rushed up to shake his hand.

Mr. Callier of Ellicott City says the television consumer reporter had helped him solve a problem several years ago, and so he feels "like I owe it to his wife to vote for her" in the March primary race for two Howard County Circuit judgeships.

That sort of name recognition -- spawned by Mr. Gelfman's 18 years on local television -- is the worst fear of the two appointed judges in the primary race, Donna Hill Staton and Diane O. Leasure, as they face two challengers, Jonathan Scott Smith and District Court Judge Lenore R. Gelfman, Mr. Gelfman's wife.

Judges Hill Staton and Leasure were appointed to the bench in the fall. To remain there, they must survive the March 5 primary and win the November general election.

Usually Howard's appointed judges have little opposition in the election after their gubernatorial appointments and are supported by local bar associations. Not this year.

This year's primary could be decided by voters' knowledge of the candidates -- a situation in which Mr. Gelfman's wide and generally positive name recognition represents a tremendous, unusual electoral advantage for his wife.

Carol Arscott, political strategist for Judges Hill Staton and Leasure, disputes this: "The voters are sophisticated enough to separate the TV personality from the candidate."

But even Ms. Arscott acknowledges: "It means [Judge Gelfman] begins with slightly higher name recognition than the other candidates."

If a recent weekend's campaigning by Mr. Gelfman is typical, "slightly higher name recognition" may be an understatement.

Most of those encountered by Mr. Gelfman outside the Giant Food store in Chatham Mall immediately recognized him and told him they would vote for his wife.

Only one prospective voter, Linda Eppinger of Ellicott City, had reservations. "I didn't know them before today, and I'm not sure how I would vote," she said. "I might be inclined not to vote [the Gelfman-Smith ticket] because he has more connections."

The challengers' campaign strategist -- educator Herbert C. Smith -- was delighted with the general reaction: Voters were making the positive association between Mr. Gelfman, whom they know from TV, and his wife, the judicial candidate.

"What separates Dick from other TV personalities is that he is a hero to people, not just another talking head," Mr. Smith says of the consumer-affairs trouble-shooter. "No one [on local television] has been known so well, so long. That puts him in a special, very, very positive category. He has built up tremendous good will."

Or as Carl Sessions Stepp, a media critic and associate professor of journalism at the University of Maryland College Park, puts it: "If you're running for office and people know you and like your celebrity spouse, so what? You're just lucky."

But Mr. Sessions Stepp says that the good will could evaporate if Mr. Gelfman steps far over the line between his private and his public life.

"He is entitled to be a citizen," he said, but not to use "his journalistic power" in an attempt to influence the election.

"He and most viewers will have a good sense of where that line is," Mr. Sessions Stepp said. "You have to be awfully careful not to contaminate the image of fairness."

In some voters' minds, that image may have been a bit tarnished in December when a third challenger, attorney Jay Fred Cohen, announced he was entering the race because Mr. Gelfman tried to persuade him not to join the fray.

When asked about Mr. Cohen's charge, Mr. Gelfman mentioned in passing that he had once investigated one of Mr. Cohen's clients in the course of TV consumer reporting.

The line between his role as a public personality and as a private citizen supporting his spouse may have been blurred: Was Mr. Gelfman passing a news tip or telling an old war story? Since then, he seems to have stopped making asides to reporters.

Marcellus Alexander, station manager at WJZ-TV where Mr. Gelfman works, says he and Mr. Gelfman talked "several months ago about his wife's potential campaign" to see if there were any concerns from a news standpoint.

"As long as he separated -- to the extent that he could -- his role as a journalist from supporting his wife's campaign, I saw no problem," Mr. Alexander said. "Dick and Lenore, like many such families, support each other."

Judge Gelfman plays down her husband's role in the campaign, saying she and Mr. Smith are known well enough in their own right to not need Mr. Gelfman's name recognition.

But she does say that she finds her husband's "cameo appearances -- bringing coffee, moving tables and being supportive" -- helpful just the same.

And Mr. Smith says he is honored just to have Mr. Gelfman share his limelight.

"He's the champion of the little people -- [something that] rubs off on Norrie," and to a lesser degree, himself, Mr. Smith says.

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