Judicial nominees prepare for race Contenders promise a polite campaign, unlike spring primary

September 01, 1996|By Shanon D. Murray and Caitlin Francke | Shanon D. Murray and Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

By the normally genteel standards of the judicial election process, last spring's primary race for two Howard County circuit judgeships was a knock-down, drag-out fight, one of the nastiest races in the state.

This fall, despite promises to the contrary from the four candidates, it could well happen again.

As the players gear up for the final round in the nominally nonpartisan race -- leading to the Nov. 5 general election -- all are calling for a kinder campaign.

The campaign will feature two challengers -- the Republican primary winners, District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and local attorney Jonathan Scott Smith -- facing off against two &r appointed circuit judges, Donna Hill Staton and Diane O. Leasure, who won the Democratic primary.

"November is a new election," Gelfman said. "It will be a constructive and positive campaign."

Campaigning for the March primary vote, the challengers attacked Gov. Parris N. Glendening's appointments of Leasure and Hill Staton -- the county's first female and black circuit judges, respectively. They questioned the appointees' qualifications, saying that legal expertise had been sacrificed to the governor's political goal of diversifying the courts.

This time around, more of the same is expected. But in a new twist, the sitting judges -- who now have been on the bench for nine months -- will try to turn the tables on the challengers, calling them the untested ones.

Howard political observers say this sets the stage for a political dogfight that will rival the primary election -- a campaign in which name calling, character assassinations and negative television advertisements were commonplace.

"It'll probably end up getting down and dirty," said Howard County Council President Darrel Drown, who supports the challengers. "Unfortunately, that's the way politics goes."

In Howard County, no other judicial race has caused such deep fissures in political and legal circles. The local bar association was so polarized that it did not endorse a candidate for the first time in its history.

Howard's Republican Central Committee has opted not to involve itself in the race, but some of its members have become actively involved -- with some toeing the Gelfman-Smith line and some splitting off to support the sitting judges.

Howard's Democratic Party endorsed the sitting judges the first time around and is expected to continue that support this fall.

The stakes are high. The two top vote-getters will hold their $93,500 judgeships for the next 15 years -- helping to determine the racial and gender makeup of Howard's five-judge top court.

The November general election is expected to draw thousands more voters than the judicial primary, because of interest in this fall's presidential campaign and because unaffiliated voters were not allowed to vote in the primary.

In the primary, votes were cast by almost 33,000 people, or only about 30 percent of Howard County's registered voters. So the four judicial candidates this fall will have to spread their resources -- time, money, energy -- across a broader base.

Last spring, Gelfman -- a Democrat -- was the overall top vote-getter in a combined tally of the Democratic and Republican portions of the primary with 16,137 votes.

She was followed by Leasure with 15,928 votes, Hill Staton with 15,263 votes and Smith with 12,750 votes.

Gelfman's appeal to voters has prompted some political

observers to speculate that she may pull away from Smith, the only Republican in the race. Early in the race, Smith was branded the loose cannon on the ticket for referring to Hill Staton and Leasure as "judges on training wheels," among other acerbic comments.

"If she [Gelfman] has any chance of success, she has to run on her own," said Joel M. Abramson, a Columbia attorney and supporter of the sitting judges. "It would appear that Smith is likely to take Gelfman down if they campaign together."

The two challengers and their supporters vigorously disagree, saying there is no dissension within their ticket. They said voters should not be surprised to see them campaigning separately in an effort to reach a larger portion of the county.

Last week, Gelfman and Smith issued separate campaign literature -- in a shift from the primary election -- describing their individual professional and personal backgrounds.

Each candidate's brochure has only one candidate's name and photo, and each has a different campaign slogan. The banner of "Elect Gelfman-Smith Circuit Court judges" appears only on the brochures' back flaps.

Said Deborah E. Dwyer, a Columbia attorney and the Gelfman-Smith campaign chairwoman: "The decision was made to do separate material because the candidates have so much information to get out. They are very supportive of one another. This is a joint campaign."

Rumors about a split or reduced relationship between the two are a ploy by their opposition, said Howard state Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a District 14B Republican.

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