2 candidates said to cause auto accident Fender-bender came near judicial hopefuls campaigning at corner

Pair left scene abruptly

Driver rear-ending car is friend of rival judge and reported incident

Campaign 1996

September 12, 1996|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

The two challengers in Howard County's Circuit Court judicial race, whose roadside sign-waving has set new standards of aggressiveness for such campaigns, may have caused a minor fender-bender just outside Columbia -- and then quickly left the scene.

The incident has touched off a new feud in the bitter county judges race just as the four candidates are gearing up for a final faceoff in the fall election.

The drivers involved in the Sept. 5 accident vary in the blame they assign to the two sign-waving candidates, District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and attorney Jonathan Scott Smith.

One of the drivers -- a friend of one of the sitting judicial candidates -- says the sight of the two waving by the side of Route 108 near Route 175 distracted her, causing her to drive her car into the back of the other car.

The driver of the vehicle that was hit says the candidates were distracting to drivers, but he did not directly blame the candidates for the accident.

Nevertheless, both drivers were shocked by Gelfman and Smith's abrupt departure from the scene of the accident.

"They left immediately," said Joe Wisniewski of Ellicott City, whose Nissan Altima was rear-ended. "I found that very ironic, especially with what they're running for.

"We're talking about justice," he said. "They did not want to be part of something that they may have helped initiate."

Howard County police say the candidates were not obligated to stay at the scene. There was little apparent damage to the cars and no one required immediate medical attention.

The accident did not result in a police report; a county police officer who happened on the scene only aided in the drivers' exchange of insurance information.

The candidates deny that their signs caused the 8 a.m. fender-bender. But they acknowledge they left immediately afterward. The accident was minor, they stress, and those involved did not appear to need aid. "Had I stayed where I was, the traffic would have run me over," said Smith, who, according to one of the drivers, was standing about 15 feet from the accident. Cars began to pass the two vehicles on the right shoulder, where he and Gelfman were standing, he said.

Gelfman said she heard a "bump" but did not see the accident, because she was standing down the road from Smith. Traffic was backing up because of a red light, she said.

"I said to Jonathan, 'It's 8 o'clock. The traffic is stopping. It's time for me to go,' " Gelfman said. "At that point, I had an obligation to get to court to do court business.

"It just honest-to-goodness didn't strike me as any big whoop," she said. "If I saw an accident with people that appeared to need assistance, I would call 911. This wasn't that type of situation."

Smith noted that sign-waving by political candidates is a Howard County tradition. "Most people seem to enjoy it," he said.

But the incident -- brought to the attention of The Sun by the rival campaign of appointed circuit judges Diane O. Leasure and Donna Hill Staton -- has sparked fire between the two campaigns, which vowed recently that the fall campaign would be much more low-key than the contentious battle before the March primary.

"What we thought was amusing was the fact a traffic court judge [Gelfman] would high-tail it away from an accident," said Lin Eagan, campaign manager for the sitting judges.

But Gelfman said that as a judge, she should not have gotten involved in the dispute between the two motorists because it could end up in her court.

"I had nothing to do with it other than the fact that I, along with dozens of other people, were there," Gelfman said.

"I didn't think it was appropriate for me to become involved at all," she said.

Linda Lowe of Westminster said the accident took place as she approached the intersection traveling south on Route 108 and saw Smith and Gelfman holding large, yellow campaign signs and waving energetically at passing motorists.

As traffic slowed, Lowe said, her car struck Wisniewski's vehicle -- which was braking -- from behind at about 15 mph.

Lowe's car had no damage, and she was uninjured.

Wisniewski said he has not had his car checked since the accident but does have an "annoying" pain in his neck and back.

Lowe, a friend of Leasure's, later told the Leasure-Hill Staton campaign about the incident, bringing it to light.

"There's no way you could drive that way without being distracted by them," she said of the two sign-waving candidates.

Pub Date: 9/12/96

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