Two judicial challengers drop adviser Chief strategist for Gelfman, Smith to sit out election

Aide led primary tactics

Departure may signal less-negative tone, observers say

April 21, 1996|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,SUN STAFF

The two challengers for Howard Circuit Court vacancies have dropped their chief political strategist in a move their volunteers hope will usher in a more positive campaign than the bitter fight that marked their primary race.

Herbert C. Smith, a political scientist at Western Maryland University, was paid $4,000 to direct strategy for District Judge Lenore A. Gelfman and attorney Jonathan Scott Smith in their partly successful primary challenge to two sitting judges.

But sources say the campaign team cannot afford to retain Mr. Smith for the general election race, although the challengers raised an unprecedented amount of money for a judicial primary in the county.

"The final decision was that, financially, they couldn't afford Herb," a high-level volunteer said.

Neither Mr. Smith nor the candidates could be reached for comment.

Money aside, the campaign sources also cited complaints that the nastiness of the primary battle -- a tone set in part by strategist Smith -- drove away potential supporters. They expressed disappointment that the March 5 election fell short of expectations.

The two challengers failed to unseat either of the two gubernatorial appointees, Circuit Judges Diane O. Leasure and Donna Hill Staton, in the primary vote. In mixed results, all four candidates won spots on the November ballot; a third challenger, underdog Jay Fred Cohen, didn't make the cut.

Strategist Smith's candidates prevailed in the county's Republican primary but lost to the two sitting circuit judges in the Democratic primary.

His candidates claimed victory after the primary results were tallied, saying they had pulled off a rare feat by toppling incumbents in one primary. One of the challengers, Jonathan Scott Smith, said the sitting judges had become "sitting ducks."

But campaign workers were disappointed that the sitting judges earned the Democratic nomination by finishing first and second in the party's primary. The challengers had hoped to knock off at least one of the incumbents by sweeping the Republican race and placing Judge Gelfman within one of the top two slots in the Democratic primary.

Strategist Smith is a longtime Democratic consultant who has directed political polls for WBAL-TV and surveys on nonpolitical issues for the University of Baltimore's William Donald Schaefer Center for Public Policy.

According to a campaign finance report filed by Feb. 23, the Gelfman-Smith campaign paid him $4,000 for his work. The two challengers outspent their opponents, raising $83,563 to run an energetic primary campaign filled with sharp, acrid attacks against the incumbents.

The challengers' campaign started afire, adopting the slogan "Elect the Best" and asserting that its candidates had more experience in criminal law than the two judges appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Strategist Smith directed attacks at the sitting judges and their friends, singling out longtime Councilman C. Vernon Gray. The challengers asserted in cable television commercials that Mr. Gray used undue influence to persuade Mr. Glendening to nominate Judge Hill Staton last fall.

But the most stinging and memorable attack came from Mr. Smith, the candidate, who discounted the incumbents' legal experience by referring to them as "judges on training wheels."

William Thies, an active county Republican, said he pulled away from the campaign as the tone grew harsh, which he said was atypical for Howard County.

"We don't run these high-powered, high-priced campaigns," Mr. Thies said. "We do mom-and-pop campaigns here."

Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Gelfman-Smith supporter, said he did not work closely with the campaign strategist, but he said he hopes the tone will change in the general election campaign.

"I'm hopeful that both sides of the campaign will be more positive and highlight the attributes of the candidates and I think that's what voters expect to see in the fall," said Mr. Flanagan, a Howard Republican.

He said neither side needed to hire professional strategists.

"This is not rocket science," Mr. Flanagan said. "These people are very, very bright."

The Leasure-Hill Staton campaign spent more than the Gelfman-Smith team on its main consultant, Mason-Dixon Campaign Polling and Strategy, but said it will continue using the group. Mason-Dixon earned $12,500 in consulting fees and charged another $9,500 for surveys, according to campaign finance reports.

Consultants for the sitting judges' campaign also have received blame for the primary's nasty tone. In particular, the Leasure-Hill Staton team fired a missive that called the challengers "whiners."

The sitting judges' campaign said its attacks were made to counter charges from the Gelfman-Smith campaign.

"We were in a totally defensive posture," said Lin Eagan, the campaign's manager.

Ms. Eagan said she expects her campaign's strategy to be more positive, although it is retaining Mason-Dixon, whose effort is being spearheaded by longtime county Republican leader Carol Arscott.

In another development, Gelfman-Smith spokeswoman Chevy Fleischman has left the campaign to perform consultant work for Republicans in two out-of-state congressional races.

"A judicial race can't pay what a congressional race pays," she said.

Pub Date: 4/21/96

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