Challengers shift gears in campaign Gelfman and Smith stress personal touch in judicial race

Both sides avoid acrimony

Leasure, Hill Staton have edge in funds and campaign staff

September 29, 1996|By Craig Timberg and Shanon D. Murray | Craig Timberg and Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

At first glance, the Howard County Circuit Court race looks like a potential blowout: The sitting judges have political muscle, a professional campaign staff and cash. Their challengers are short on all three.

But District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman, attorney Jonathan Scott Smith and their revamped campaign of volunteers are counting on something they hope proves more powerful -- old-fashioned retail campaigning.

As incumbents Diane O. Leasure and Donna Hill Staton forgo street-level campaigning for fear of violating judicial decorum, Gelfman and Smith have been knocking on doors, waving from street corners and, increasingly, talking tough on crime -- a top issue for suburban voters.

"Everybody is fed up with the court system," Smith told a crowd in Elkridge Thursday night as he held a stack of newspaper stories about violent crimes. "I think people think it has failed us. And enough is enough."

Yesterday, through an intermittent drizzle, Smith brought the same message to the Font Hill area of Ellicott City -- going door-to-door to introduce himself to voters and hand out brochures calling for less plea bargaining, life imprisonment without parole, and the death penalty for "heinous murders."

The change in tactics and tone is not entirely voluntary.

Gelfman-Smith campaign officials decline to discuss the details of their finances, but they acknowledge that this time around they are unlikely to match the fund raising of the sitting judges, who were appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and enjoy statewide backing.

In last spring's primary, the challengers raised $83,000, compared with the sitting judges' $71,000.

No campaign finance reports are available since then. But the sitting judges have kept up an aggressive schedule of fund raising, while the challengers have held only one fund-raiser.

Many supporters of the challengers during the primary, including some who are listed on the campaign's letterhead, say they haven't been contacted by the campaign at all since the primary. They haven't received requests for donations or volunteer help.

"It's refreshing," said Ellicott City lawyer David A. Titman, once a supporter of the challengers who publicly rejected them for their part in the contentious primary campaign.

"Howard County has intelligent voters," he said. "I appreciate candidates who don't spend a ton of money, who don't barrage the mailbox with mailers and surveys. Things are pretty quiet."

The quieter approach is intentional, as both campaigns have vowed to try to avoid the public acrimony that marked the primary race.

The technically nonpartisan race's high emotions go back to its genesis. Much of the initial support for Gelfman and Smith came from Republicans outraged that Glendening, a Democrat, had appointed judges who live here but hadn't been practicing law in Howard.

But after the brutal, expensive and ultimately indecisive primary race, many county Republicans have cooled to the challengers' ticket and turned their attention to the local presidential and congressional campaigns.

"I don't feel the sense of urgency I felt during the primary," said County Council Chairman Darrel E. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican.

Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a West Friendship Republican, was so upset by the ugliness of the primary campaign that he advised both camps to change their ways for the general election.

"All of them should have known better," Feaga said. "Both of them should have fired their staffs the day after the election."

The Gelfman and Smith campaign says it did not clean house after the primary. In an interview last week, Smith offered individual explanations for the departures of several officials of his ticket's primary campaign.

Nonetheless, the primary campaign's most visible representatives -- strategist Herbert C. Smith of Western Maryland College, spokeswoman Chevy Fleischman and treasurer and former county official William E. "Ned" Eakle Sr. -- are gone.

And former campaign chairwoman Betty Smith Adams, who has moved to Carroll County but still practices law in Howard, is still with the campaign but in a far less visible role -- sitting on the ticket's steering committee.

Columbia attorney Deborah E. Dwyer, a political novice who had a less-public role in the primary, is now campaign chairwoman and spokeswoman. State Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Republican attorney, has emerged as a de facto spokesman.

And the campaign is now producing its own television ads, instead of using its primary-race media consultant.

The changes in the Gelfman-Smith campaign stand to save money. During the primary, the ticket spent thousands of dollars for paid staff that did many of the things volunteers now do. The campaign now has hundreds of volunteers, the two candidates say.

The result is a campaign that sometimes lacks sophistication in comparison with the sitting judges' effort.

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