Cohen, 'odd man out' of judges' race, has 'no regrets' Lawyer's populist style failed to impress voters

March 07, 1996|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

The only loser in the race for the Howard County Circuit Court bench went to bed at 10: 30 p.m. election night. And by 7: 15 a.m. yesterday, Jay Fred Cohen was in his Pikesville office practicing law -- much as he has done for almost 40 years.

"I have no regrets at all. I'm the odd man out, and that's the way it goes," Mr. Cohen said. "I probably knew what was going to happen from the beginning. But once I'm in, I stay in."

Mr. Cohen, 62, was one of two private attorneys in the race to unseat Circuit Court Judges Donna Hill Staton and Diane O. Leasure. But the other attorney, Jonathan Scott Smith, paired himself with District Court Judge Lenore R. Gelfman, making Mr. Cohen the only solo candidate.

What separated the Columbia resident and Pikesville attorney further from the field was his low-budget populist campaign.

In the most caustic and expensive judicial race in the county's history -- ripe with negative campaign ads filled with charges and counter-charges from the lead challengers and the sitting judges -- the five candidates raised a record total of more than $158,000. Mr. Cohen raised less than $4,000 of that sum, as he promised.

The name-calling and hefty campaign financing were undignified for a judicial race, Mr. Cohen said. "I don't believe it belongs," he said.

The partisan politics also played an inappropriate role -- to his detriment, Mr. Cohen said. In the bipartisan judicial contest, all candidates ran on both the Democratic and Republican ballots. The top two finishers on each ballot advanced to the general election in November.

"There were [political] machines working for the other sides. The Republicans worked for Gelfman and Smith. The Democrats worked for the sitting judges," Mr. Cohen said. "It would have been a miracle if I would have won." TC During the campaign, Mr. Cohen often said the sitting judges -- who were appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening -- were the politicians' choice. He said the challengers -- who are well-known in the county's legal community -- were the lawyers' choice. He offered himself as the people's choice.

The numbers, however, didn't bear out his self-analysis.

Mr. Cohen received 1,543 votes, or 5 percent, in the Democratic primary -- which was won by Judges Hill Staton and Leasure.

He received 2,411 votes, or 8 percent, in the Republican primary -- which was won by Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith.

That Republicans voted for Mr. Cohen, a Democrat, surprised him the most, he said. But he also admitted amazement that his "straight campaign" didn't catch on, he said.

"In an election for judges, it should be done the way I did it," Mr. Cohen said of his low-budget, low-key campaign. "But it didn't help me."

Now Mr. Cohen has turned his attention to the dozens of tax returns he was hired to do in the next month, as well as the dozens of case folders on his cluttered desk.

"I'll practice law until I get tired," he said, "which will probably be never."

Pub Date: 3/07/96

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