Circuit judge battle II set for Nov. Governor's nominees win Democratic race, two challengers GOP

An expensive campaign

Voters eliminate one candidate from the general election

Campaign 1996

March 06, 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.

The bitter primary battle for two Howard County Circuit Court judgeships ended last night with the strong prospect of another round of campaign hostilities this fall.

Both major slates of candidates -- one made up of two sitting judges appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening last fall and the other composed of their two leading challengers -- survived the primary to run again in the November general election.

Turnout was low, with only 31 percent of registered voters going to the polls.

With 83 of 85 precincts reporting last night -- all but absentee ballots -- the two sitting circuit judges, Diane O. Leasure and Donna Hill Staton, took the county's Democratic primary.

Their two main challengers -- District Judge Lenore A. Gelfman and attorney Jonathan Scott Smith -- prevailed in the county's Republican primary.

The fifth candidate -- attorney Jay Fred Cohen, who ran a low-key campaign -- trailed in both primaries.

The candidates ran in both primaries.

The race was the most expensive judicial campaign in the county's history, with the candidates raising more than $158,000.

Both major slates had hoped to knock off at least one of their opponents in the primary -- leaving three candidates for the fall. But both sides publicly were of good cheer last night.

In taking even one of the two party primaries from the incumbents, the Gelfman-Smith team claimed a big victory. "We have shattered the sitting judge principle in Howard County," Mr. Smith said. "They changed from sitting judges to sitting ducks."

The Leasure-Hill Staton team also claimed victory, dismissing Mr. Smith's analysis.

"They've always had a different perspective on this campaign than we've had," said Judge Hill Staton. "They can put whatever spin on this they like. But I'm obviously delighted that we've done so well."

The appointed incumbents -- Judge Leasure is the county's first woman Circuit Court judge and Judge Hill Staton is the county's first black judge -- vowed to continue the fight.

"I don't think this is indicative of what we can expect in November," Judge Leasure. "I think we are only going to be stronger."

The split in the results between the two parties reflects the unusually contentious politics of the judicial race -- a race marked by repeated complaints and countercharges, particularly over television advertisements run by the Gelfman-Smith slate.

In part, Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith -- with strong ties to the county's legal establishment -- campaigned against Mr. Glendening and County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, a Columbia Democrat, accusing them of fulfilling a goal of making the Howard bench more diverse by appointing lawyers inexperienced in criminal law.

The challengers adopted the slogan "Elect the Best" and said the new judges were "on training wheels." The appointed judges called the two challengers "whiners" for complaining about having been bypassed by the governor.

High-ranking Republican officials got behind the Gelfman-Smith campaign early. The battle seemed not whether they would win approval from GOP voters -- they expected that all along -- but whether they could knock off at least one of the sitting judges in the Democratic primary.

As late as 8: 30 p.m. yesterday, Gelfman-Smith campaign aides still were talking about that as a possibility. But as the numbers began coming in, a somber mood started to build as precinct workers began bringing in tallies.

"We lost the Democrats, but won the Republicans," said a campaign worker as he showed an adding machine tape to campaign strategist Herbert C. Smith and TV personality Dick Gelfman, husband of Judge Gelfman. "It's been that way all day long."

The candidates put the best face on the situation.

"To win one primary is a big accomplishment," said candidate Smith, who is not related to the campaign strategist. "It brought Democracy back to the election of judges."

Judge Gelfman added: "We worked very hard to reach out to people -- and people obviously responded very favorably to us. Lawyers, elected officials and private citizens asked us to challenge Governor Glendening's appointees, and we did that successfully -- which I think is pretty significant."

Meanwhile, the sitting judges cheered as early results came in showing Judge Leasure running close to Mr. Smith in some Republican precincts. But their hopes were dashed by Mr. Smith's strong showings in later returns.

Neil Axel, co-chairman of the Leasure-Hill Staton campaign, said he was disappointed "to the extent that we're not able to put this all behind us." But, he said, there is "a lot to be pleased with in these results."

Mr. Axel said the sitting judges are growing in their jobs every day and that it will be difficult by the time the general election campaign heats up this fall to criticize them for not having enough experience.

"There will be no 'judges on training wheels,' " he said. "Not that there ever was."

If the primary vote is any indication, Judge Gelfman will be a strong candidate in the fall election. She was the top vote-getter in the combined primaries, with 16,137 votes, followed by Judge Leasure with 15,928, Judge Hill Staton with 15,263 and Mr. Smith with 12,750.

The Democratic results were:

Judge Hill Staton: 10,445 votes, or 31 percent.

Judge Leasure: 10,296, or 31 percent.

Judge Gelfman: 6,792 votes, or 20 percent.

Mr. Smith: 4,582 votes, or 14 percent.

Mr. Cohen: 1,543 votes, or 5 percent.

The Republican results were:

Judge Gelfman: 9,345 votes, or 31 percent.

Mr. Smith: 8,170, or 27 percent.

Judge Leasure: 5,632 votes, or 19 percent.

Judge Hill Staton: 4,818 votes, or 16 percent.

Mr. Cohen: 2,411 votes, or 8 percent.

Pub Date: 3/06/96

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