Bar chief delays action on ads -- again Decision deferred until group's board meets on Friday

February 28, 1996|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

Fred Howard Silverstein says he is only trying to do the right thing, but that has put him in the middle of a political minefield -- the heated primary race for two seats on the Howard County Circuit Court.

For the second time this week, Mr. Silverstein, president of the Howard County Bar Association, backed away yesterday from formally requesting that TV commercials for two of five candidates in the race, District Court Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and attorney Jonathan Scott Smith, be pulled from the air.

After notifying the Gelfman-Smith team last week that the ads -- in his view -- misrepresent the bar's neutral position in the judicial race, he then said he had to meet with the bar's president-elect before taking any action.

A decision was expected Monday, but it did not come. Then, after meeting with the president-elect yesterday, Mr. Silverstein again deferred action -- until a meeting Friday of the bar's board.

All the while, he has been taking sniping over his tentative stand from members of the group of 420 lawyers, who elected him to a yearlong term as president last July.

It is no surprise that the bitter judicial race has divided the local legal community -- that was clear from its start -- but even Mr. Silverstein is surprised at the degree to which bar members have turned on him.

"I was just being optimistic, maybe overly optimistic, that everyone would do the best thing for Howard County," Mr. Silverstein said yesterday in reflecting on his predicament.

Instead, the 44-year-old attorney -- who has practiced mainly domestic and corporate law in the county for 21 years -- has found him self uncomfortably at center stage as the bitter Circuit Court race heads toward Tuesday's primary vote.

The controversy started when Mr. Silverstein said ads claiming Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith are "over-whelmingly recommended" by the bar for the judgeships misrepresent the bar's position, because a recent bar poll resulted in no candidates in the race being endorsed.

But Gelfman-Smith campaign officials say the ads are based accurately on two earlier bar surveys, and they have refused to take them off the air.

Mr. Silverstein told the campaign Friday that an official request to pull the ads was pending, but the reaction by some local attorneys since then has forced him to delay further action until the Friday board meeting.

Nearly 30 local lawyers -- including five former bar presidents and two members of the board of directors -- held a news confer

ence Monday to denounce Mr. Silverstein's involvement in the campaign.

As Jeffrey A. Krew, a board member and a Gelfman-Smith supporter, put it yesterday: "Mr. Silverstein made a procedural error by attempting to make this decision on his own."

'Trying to be fair'

Supporters of the two sitting judges in the race -- Circuit Judges Donna Hill Staton and Diane O. Leasure, whose campaign officials complained to the bar about the Gelfman-Smith ads -- feel otherwise about Mr. Silverstein's stand.

"I just think he's trying to be fair," said Richard Kinlein, a veteran local attorney and a supporter of the sitting judges. "He's not a man of political bent."

Lee Stuart Ashmore, a Columbia attorney who supports the two sitting judges, suggests that Mr. Silverstein may have been naive to expect any other sort of reaction within the bar.

"Maybe he didn't realize that half of the bar is for the sitting judges and half is for the challengers," Mr. Ashmore said. "That means anyone who gets in the middle will be attacked."

Mr. Silverstein thinks the focus on him is misplaced.

"There's but so much time left before we have to elect two judges to serve for 15 years, but people are now talking about this guy Silverstein," he said. "It's not about me."

Schism aggravated

But some attorneys note that his tentative move against the Gelfman-Smith campaign simply aggravated a schism within the Howard legal community over the judicial race.

The divisions are so great that none of the two sitting judges, the two leading challengers or the fifth candidate, attorney Jay Fred Cohen, gained the requisite 70 percent vote to earn an endorsement in a recent bar poll.

Now the controversy will go before the bar's entire board. But the board is as divided as its membership.

Four of the board's 11 members are supporters of Judges Hill Staton and Leasure. Three support Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith.

Two have unknown positions, and two -- Mr. Silverstein and David C. Hjortsberg, the bar's president-elect -- have declared their neutrality.

But even if the board decides Friday to demand that the TV ads be pulled from the air, the week's delay still represents a partial victory for the Gelfman-Smith campaign.

Said David S. Harvis, a bar board member and a Gelfman-Smith supporter: "What he's doing now -- further review and discussion -- is probably a better way to handle it."

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