2 leading judicial challengers defy Howard Co. bar president They continue to run disputed TV commercials

February 27, 1996|By Shanon D. Murray and James M. Coram | Shanon D. Murray and James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

Two leading challengers in the primary race for the Howard County Circuit Court bench are defying the president of the county's bar association by continuing to air cable television commercials that may wrongly imply they have the bar's official support.

About 30 supporters of the two challengers, District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and attorney Jonathan Scott Smith, called a news conference yesterday to denounce the bar president's move against the TV ads as inappropriate.

Illustrating just how divisive the judges race has been for the local legal community, those who showed up to oppose the bar president at the news conference included six former bar presidents and two current executive board members.

"We will continue running the commercials," said Betty Smith Adams, the Gelfman-Smith campaign chairwoman.

Third poll

The ads in question -- based on two polls of Howard bar members taken last year -- proclaim Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith were "overwhelmingly recommended" for the judgeships by the group.

Last week, however, the bar released the results of a third, more recent poll -- one that was so inconclusive that for the first time it is not endorsing a candidate in a Howard judges race.

Since that decision, the campaign of the two sitting judges in the race, Circuit Judges Donna Hill Staton and Diane O. Leasure, has called the commercials "a lie" and asked the bar association to demand they be pulled from the air.

Fred Howard Silverstein, the bar's president, did so Friday in a telephone conversation with Ms. Adams of the Gelfman-Smith campaign team in which he asked that the ads be pulled, Mr. Silverstein and Ms. Adams said yesterday.

But Mr. Silverstein has not yet followed up that phone call with a formal demand of the Gelfman-Smith campaign because, he said, other bar leaders and members have questioned his authority to take such action on his own.

Mr. Silverstein said yesterday he won't take further action until he consults today with the bar's president-elect, David C. Hjortsberg, for guidance.

Disbelief expressed

"Ultimately I have to make a decision, but I also to behave responsibly," he said. He expressed disbelief at the mounting dispute over his threat to demand the ads be pulled, a dispute he characterized as "amazing."

Mr. Silverstein stressed that the bar does not favor any of the five candidates in the race.

But the dispute over the ads -- and the judges race itself -- strikes deep within the bar, as evidenced by the Gelfman-Smith news conference.

There, a member of the bar association's executive board, David S. Harvis, attacked the idea of pulling their ads.

Mr. Harvis said the ads are based on two surveys conducted last year by the bar and "any attempts to disparage them is an attempt to rewrite history."

The controversy over the campaign advertising in the judges' race comes as Howard voters are being inundated by last-minute appeals from the five candidates on local cable TV.

Altogether, the candidates plan to air almost 1,000 30-second cable TV ads between now and next Tuesday's primary vote -- 354 ads from Judges Leasure and Hill Staton, 342 from Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith, and 112 from Columbia resident Jay Fred Cohen.

Pair called best candidates

The three ads in question all say that Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith were deemed to be the best candidates by the local bar.

Two ads say the two were "overwhelmingly recommended" by the local bar. A third ad says, "Their colleagues said they were the best to serve on the Circuit Court."

The different wording of the third ad, which began running this week, is not in response to the bar president's criticisms of the previous ads, said Chevy Fleischman, a spokeswoman for the Gelfman-Smith campaign. All of the ads were written weeks ago, she said.

"We decided at the beginning of the campaign to not develop ads that specifically respond to any charges that develop during the race," Ms. Fleischman said.

All three ads will run until the primary next Tuesday, she said.

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