Voters not keen on Howard judicial race Many unable to name any of 5 candidates

February 19, 1996|By Norris P. West and James M. Coram | Norris P. West and James M. Coram,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Shanon D. Murray contributed to this article.

Howard County politicians and attorneys are following intensely the primary campaign for two county Circuit Court seats, but so far the acrimonious race is barely registering with the electorate.

Most prospective voters seem at a loss to name even one of the five judicial candidates, according to a recent round of informal, on-the-street interviews with a sampling of county residents.

In about 65 such interviews with Sun reporters during the past week and a half, few prospective Howard voters could name any of the candidates without prompting.

The response of Greta Stockman, 38, of North Laurel was typical: "There are a man and woman who are running and are talking bad about the other two women that are running."

Added Brian Harvey, 32, of Laurel: "Ito and Wapner are the only two judges anybody knows."

At the same time, many county voters -- even those who know little about the judges race now -- say that picking good judges is increasingly important to them because of their growing concern about crime.

"We need somebody to crack down on these people," John Holbrook, an elderly Columbia man said while having breakfast with his wife at Frank's Place in Jessup.

As the March 5 primary draws closer, four of the five candidates for the two Circuit Court seats are poised to spend heavily on advertising -- particularly local cable TV ads -- in an effort to transform that general concern into concrete choices in the voting booth.

One of the challengers in the race, Columbia resident and Pikesville attorney Jay Fred Cohen, has raised little money and promises a low-key finish to his low-key campaign.

But the other two challengers -- District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and attorney Jonathan Scott Smith -- can be counted upon to increasingly hammer away at their central campaign theme: their contention that they are more experienced than the two sitting judges appointed last fall by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

The appointed Circuit Court judges -- Diane O. Leasure and Donna Hill Staton -- were sworn into office in November. They are, respectively, the first woman and the first black person to serve as Howard Circuit judges.

The Gelfman-Smith camp has disparaged Judges Leasure and Hill Staton with allegations that they lack sufficient criminal law experience and by referring to their short time on the bench as "training wheels."

Supporters of Judges Leasure and Hill Staton, in turn, have cast the two challengers as "whiners" whose central complaint is that the governor passed them by in the judicial selection process.

Their campaign techniques so far have differed.

Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith have been using the tried-and-true tactic of standing by major county intersections during the morning rush hour to wave at prospective voters.

They also have decorated the sides of county roadways with placards and intend to "blitz" various parts of the county with pamphleteering. "You're always going to have the voter who doesn't read the newspaper and doesn't know about the campaign," said Chevy Fleischman, the Gelfman-Smith spokeswoman. "We will reach out to them."

By contrast, the appointed judges have been more sedate, perhaps in an effort to emphasize that they already sit on the bench. But their camp also is beginning to plaster the sides of major roads with signs and to mail pamphlets.

Lin Eagan, the campaign manager for the Leasure-Hill Staton team, said the judges' message is that they have strong educational and legal backgrounds -- and that their opponents have offered no reason for change.

For a small but notable core of voters sampled by The Sun, Mr. Glendening's appointment of the sitting judges appears to be a negative factor.

"We don't know a whole lot, but we know this much," said Doris Redding at Columbia's Kings Contrivance Village Center. "We're not going to vote for the ones Glendening put in."

At Columbia's Dorsey's Search Village Center, Lory Thompson also was upset by the governor's stated intention of increasing the court's diversity.

"I don't like quotas for quotas' sake," he said. "I don't think judges should be political appointees at any level."

But some others interviewed like the idea of more diversity on the bench.

"We need black women judges," Rachel Wade said at Columbia's Hickory Ridge Village Center.

And along Ellicott City's Main Street, store clerk Elizabeth Mallon said that she favors Judges Leasure and Hill Staton: "We need more women on the bench. I don't even know what their political affiliation is and it doesn't matter to me."

Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith are trying to overcome such leanings by stressing their experience.

At Dorsey's Search, Dwayne McElrath said he's heard that line of reasoning but that he is convinced the movement toward diversity is more important.

"Qualifications are important," he said, "but it's time for a change. Where do you start? Where do you begin? When you make a change you can't please everybody. This is our chance."

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