Judicial contest snarls party ties Nonpartisan tradition yields to infighting

Campaign 1996

September 22, 1996|By Caitlin Francke and Shanon D. Murray | Caitlin Francke and Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

A Sept. 22 article in the Howard County edition of The Sun incorrectly stated the position of state Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Howard Democrat, on the Howard County Circuit Court race. Pendergrass says she is not supporting any of the four candidates.

The Sun regrets the error.

In Maryland, judicial races are supposed to be nonpartisan affairs. But in the Howard County Circuit Court race, party politics has been as visible as the candidates themselves -- creating some highly unusual alliances.

In the election campaign, some Democrats naturally have lined up behind the winners of their primary, sitting judges Donna Hill Staton and Diane O. Leasure. Similarly, some Republicans have done the same for their primary winners, challengers District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and attorney Jonathan Scott Smith.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

But the race also has produced some strange bedfellows -- with party members crossing lines for their ticket of choice.

"It's not a traditional race. It's nonpartisan. It's bipartisan," says County Councilman Dennis R. Schrader, a Republican who supports the sitting judges. "You've got a mixed bag of relationships and that's why it's so hard to figure out."

The line-crossing has added political and, in some cases, personal elements to a technically nonpartisan judges contest -- and produced fractures in both parties.

The election is the first time that Republicans -- state leaders, county elected officials and rank-and-file members -- have been divided since their rapid rise to power in Howard this decade.

Among supporters of the sitting judges are the county's Democratic Central Committee, which for the first time made an endorsement in a judicial race; the African-American Republican Club; Republican operatives such as Schrader, and Carol A. Arscott and Joan I. Athen, former heads of the county GOP Central Committee.

The Republican Party -- in keeping with its tradition -- did not make an endorsement.

The challengers' ticket itself is split, with Republican Smith and Democrat Gelfman. And it is drawing support from both sides.

Smith and Gelfman have attracted prominent Republicans -- state Del. Robert L. Flanagan, former candidate for lieutenant governor Paul H. Rappaport, and County Council members Darrel E. Drown and Charles C. Feaga.

On the challengers' side, Gelfman more than Smith has attracted support from such prominent Democrats as Dels. Elizabeth Bobo and Shane Pendergrass, despite the Democratic committee's endorsement of the sitting judges.

Mixture of motives

The political motives in all this are as tangled as the players: Some Democrats support the challengers, who won the Republican primary, because they believe Gelfman should have been appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Some Republicans support the challengers because their election would be a slap at the governor, who touted the appointments of Hill Staton and Leasure as part of his goal to diversify courts in Maryland.

Some Democrats support the sitting judges because they are Democrats appointed by a Democratic governor.

Some Republicans support the sitting judges because Smith isn't a party activist and his pairing with Gelfman -- a Democrat -- alienated some loyalists.

"I hear Jonathan Scott Smith is a fellow Republican, but he hasn't done anything for the party," says Athen. "I don't consider him any different than anyone else."

The starting place for this stew was Gelfman or Glendening, according to local political observers.

Many in Howard's political and legal circles were upset when Gelfman, a lifelong Democrat and longtime member of the community, was not appointed by the governor, observers say.

"I think Judge Gelfman was the logical person to be chosen head and shoulders above everyone else," Flanagan says. "Many people could not understand why she did not receive the appointment."

Gelfman has friends in both parties locally, especially because some prominent political players in Howard have switched party affiliations in recent years. That translated to some crossovers, Schrader says.

Even after winning the Republican primary -- and despite having a Republican running mate -- Gelfman has the support of Bobo, a former Howard County executive. Bobo also supports Hill Staton, who won the Democratic primary.

Carole Fisher, chairwoman of the county's Democratic Central Committee, agrees that the race became political because of Gelfman.

"It began the moment she chose to run with a Republican. It was a clear case of right and wrong to me," she says. The committee "cannot support a split ticket. We cannot support a Republican."

Governor's foes

Some Republicans don't appear bothered by their split ticket. Their main goal is to nettle Glendening, whom they blame for politicizing the race.

Howard -- home to Rappaport, who was Ellen R. Sauerbrey's running mate in her race against Glendening in the last gubernatorial election -- has an enclave of virulent anti-Glendening sentiment.

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