Columbia Democrats endorse sitting judges Hill Staton, Leasure out-poll 3 challengers in quiet club session

February 15, 1996|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

The Columbia Democratic Club put aside its boisterous history last night and quietly endorsed Howard County Circuit Judges Donna Hill Staton and Diane O. Leasure in the March 5 primary.

In past years, fights for the club's endorsements have been spectacles of tears, anger and political intrigue. But last night's meeting was a snooze by any measure.

There were no pyrotechnics in the speeches by the sitting judges or their three challengers -- no direct allusions to what has become the nastiest judges' race in the state.

Columbia resident Jay Fred Cohen, an attorney who practices in Pikesville, helped set the placid tone when he told the crowd of 60 people, "I'm not fighting with anybody, I'm not calling anybody names."

That is very different from the campaigns of the other candidates.

District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and her running mate, Columbia attorney Jonathan Scott Smith, say Judges Hill Staton and Leasure were appointed because of the political favoritism by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and east Columbia County Councilman C. Vernon Gray.

Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith say they have superior qualifications when compared with the sitting judges and say they would have ascended to the Circuit Court if the appointments had been based on merit.

In buttressing their contentions, they have aired their confidential applications for the judgeships and brought them along for any club members to read.

"We've opened up our applications -- we challenge our opponents to do the same," Mr. Smith said.

Judges Leasure and Hill Staton say they were appointed on merit and survived a rigorous selection process that included Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith. The sitting judges touted their education and experience last night, including their recent experience on the bench.

"We've been working very hard to see that justice is served," said Judge Hill Staton. "By the time of the general election [in November] we will have been serving in our positions for an entire year."

Judge Leasure also alluded to the appointment process, saying it was one of the most rigorous, intense experiences she has ever had. In a mailing yesterday, the sitting judges call Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith "whiners" and poor losers.

It takes a majority vote of the Columbia Democratic Club members in attendance to win the club's endorsement. With 35 votes cast for each office, Judge Hill Staton and Leasure were endorsed on the first ballot, winning 25 and 23 votes. respectively.

Judge Gelfman received nine votes and Mr. Smith, the lone Republican in the judges' race, got three. Mr. Cohen was shut out.

The club alo endorsed school board candidate Francine Wishnick.

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