Judicial race may explode again in fall 4 of 5 contenders survive the heated primary election

'Race soured the voters'

2 highest vote-getters in November will win Circuit bench terms

March 07, 1996|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Shanon D. Murray contributed to this article.

The political volcano that became Howard County's Circuit judges' race -- one of the nastiest campaigns of any kind ever waged in the county -- is today dormant, but not extinct.

The heat remains just below the surface, ready to erupt when the contest resumes before the fall general election.

Campaign strategists for both sides promise a kinder, gentler campaign in the fall, but they may not be able to avoid a reprise BTC the hostilities that marked the primary campaign.

Four of the five judicial candidates survived the most expensive judicial contest in Howard's history -- with the vote in Tuesday's primary vote splitting firmly along party lines.

The slate of Judges Diane O. Leasure and Donna Hill Staton -- appointed by Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening last fall -- took the Democratic side of the vote.

Their main challengers -- the slate of District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and Columbia attorney Jonathan Scott Smith, with strong ties to the local Republican Party and the Howard legal establishment -- claimed the GOP side.

In November, the four candidates will be listed on the ballot without party affiliation. The two highest vote-getters will win 15-year terms on Howard's highest court.

But some voters and even active supporters of both sides already appear to have been turned off by the bitter character of the primary race.

For example, Ellicott City attorney Dave A. Titman had actively supported the Gelfman-Smith slate. Yesterday, however, he sent letters to all four candidates saying that he wouldn't support either slate in the fall.

"The vitriolic character of the judicial race clearly soured the voters on lawyers generally and raised questions about the quality of our judicial bench," he stated in his letter, faxed to The Sun yesterday.

"It seems illogical to be involved in either campaign and cause the voters in Howard County to further lower their opinion of my profession," he wrote.

Having seen the judicial candidates aim for jugular veins in the primary, Mr. Titman doubts they can resist doing the same this fall.

He foresees the candidates redoubling their campaign efforts in the fall, amassing "telephone banks and mailers that will rival in scope and expense anything Howard County has ever seen," his letter said.

The 12-week-long primary battle featured mailings and cable TV advertising that at times threatened to go beyond name-calling into outright character assassination. Most political observers said it was the most negative local campaign they ever had seen.

Both sides attempted last-minute knockout punches.

The Gelfman-Smith camp called Democratic voters right before the election to imply falsely that they had Democrats' formal support.

And the sitting judges -- Judge Leasure is the county's first female Circuit Court judge and Judge Hill Staton is the county's first black judge -- sent out a mailing that alluded to Mr. Smith as an example of the white, male judges that have served Howard for 129 years.

The backbiting seems to have most hurt Mr. Smith -- the candidate who most vigorously carried the fight and who most closely was identified with the negative tone of the campaign.

Mr. Smith finished fourth in the balloting if the tallies from both primaries are combined -- well behind the two sitting judges and his running mate, Judge Gelfman, who finished first overall.

Those standings may put Judge Gelfman, who benefits from the most widespread name recognition in the race, in a bind -- by raising the question of whether she would do better in the fall if she ran alone than if she ran with Mr. Smith.

Along these lines, more than a few supporters were wincing during the Gelfman-Smith election night gathering at some of Mr. Smith's more pointed comments, such as when he boasted that he and Judge Gelfman had turned the sitting judges into "sitting ducks."

But Gelfman-Smith campaign officials yesterday ruled out the possibility of a split in their slate.

Herbert C. Smith, campaign strategist for Judge Gelfman and attorney Smith -- to whom he is not related -- said he is unconcerned by Mr. Smith's relatively low standing in the race. "A vigorous door-to-door campaign can correct that," he said.

But Brad Coker, a nationally known pollster based in Howard, said Judge Gelfman will have to distance herself somewhat from Mr. Smith to win this fall, but cannot risk alienating a significant share of Republican voters by abandoning him.

Perhaps to that end, the Gelfman-Smith team already is promising a less contentious fall campaign -- one focusing on the sitting judges' record since they were appointed last fall.

Carol Arscott, chief adviser to the incumbent judges, said they also plan to wage an upbeat campaign -- at least at the start.

In every campaign, "it's important to absorb as many hits as you can," she said, "but there comes a point when people start believing the lies told about you" and the campaign has to retaliate.

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