Bar halts request to ban TV ads But lawyers rebut candidates' statements

March 04, 1996|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer James M. Coram contributed to this article.

The Howard County Bar Association has retreated from an earlier request that two candidates for the county Circuit Court pull their television ads from the air, but the lawyers group has released a "statement of facts" that contrasts sharply with assertions in those ads.

In its statement released Friday, the bar -- speaking through its executive board for the first time and not its president -- said firmly it has never recommended any candidate in the primary election that concludes tomorrow.

The bar statement contrasts with two TV commercials for two of the three challengers in the heated Circuit Court race, District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and attorney Jonathan Scott Smith. The ads assert that the association "overwhelmingly recommended" the two for the judgeships.

The bar's four-page statement also said that all polls of bar members on prospective judges -- such as the polls cited in the ads -- were ordered confidential by former Gov. William Donald Schaefer in 1991.

This again contrasts with the challengers' TV ads, which allege that Gov. Parris N. Glendening last year "ordered results [of polls] kept confidential" for his own political purposes.

Betty Smith Adams, chairwoman of the Gelfman-Smith campaign, said she doubts the candidates' TV ads will be pulled from the air.

And the bar made clear Friday that it will not insist that the Gelfman-Smith campaign withdraw the ads -- in contrast to a request to remove the ads more than a week ago by bar President Fred H. Silverstein.

Mr. Silverstein said Friday that any discrepancies between the TV ads and the bar's position will be apparent to county voters.

"Howard County has a pretty bright electorate," he said. "It was incumbent upon [the bar] to clarify the facts."

The bar statement was written by the bar's president-elect, David C. Hjortsberg, and approved by the group's 11-member )) board of directors.

It provides a detailed chronology of how surveys given to bar members in March and September 1995 and last month were administered, under what rules and the results.

The bar's board chose to draft the statement -- instead of taking any sort of direct action against the Gelfman-Smith campaign -- as a means of easing a deep split within the lawyers' group between those members supporting the two challengers and those supporting the campaign of sitting Circuit Judges Donna Hill Staton and Diane O. Leasure, who were appointed by Mr. Glendening in 1995.

That split became public last week when Mr. Silverstein was criticized by some bar group members for saying that the ads should be removed because they incorrectly gave the impression that Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith had been endorsed by the bar.

Friday's meeting of the bar's board -- and the board's subsequent statement -- were aimed at alleviating tensions within the group and downplaying publicity on the split within the bar over the TV ads.

Bar board members took pains Friday to say their meeting lacked any sort of acrimony, despite political differences in the bitter judicial contest.

The bar's statement "is 100 percent correct and either side will claim something in it to their advantage," said David S. Harvis, a bar board member and Gelfman-Smith supporter. "The fact that [bar members have] been at each others' throats has been overplayed."

But some say division among the general membership is undeniable and will resonate for months to come.

"That's what happens when you have contested judicial elections," said Lin Eagan, manager of the sitting judges' campaign. Her request to the bar association that it review and remove the Gelfman-Smith campaign ad started the affair.

"It's a shame, and it will probably interfere with the internal workings of the bar association for years to come," Ms. Eagan said.

Bobbie Fine, president of the Howard County Women's Bar Association, agreed. The bar association is "so divided they can't come up with one answer without" distancing the other half, she said. By issuing a statement of facts, they are essentially "abstaining."

Meanwhile, Ms. Adams, of the Gelfman-Smith campaign, continued to maintain Friday that the TV ads are "historically true" because they are based on the first two of three bar polls -- polls last year in which the two candidates received favorable ratings.

In the bar's third and most recent poll on the five candidates in this primary race, however, none received 70 percent approval as qualified -- a rating needed for the bar's endorsement.

As to the ads' claims on the bar polls' confidentiality clause, Ms. Adams did acknowledge that the Gelfman-Smith campaign erred in saying in the TV ads that the clause came from Mr. Glendening.

Tobey G. Brehm, a bar board member and supporter of Circuit Judges Hill Staton and Leasure, said before Mr. Smith was a candidate, he sat on the state's judicial nominating commission and he should have been aware of the source of the confidentiality clause.

"There is no question as to what the facts are," Ms. Brehm said. "I guess they're trying to get around it."

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