Judges' race leaves legacy of rivalry Republicans split

blacks renew fight for judicial seat

GOP unity breakfast set

Campaign squabbles may have set stage for 1998 contests

November 10, 1996|By Craig Timberg and Shanon D. Murray | Craig Timberg and Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

One of the nastiest campaigns in Howard County history has finally ended, but the legacy of Tuesday's judicial election -- perhaps as bitter and passionate as the race itself -- is just beginning to take shape.

The county's Republican Party is facing deep fractures for the first time. Its State House delegation is re-examining the wisdom of judicial elections. And its African-American community is renewing its fight for a spot on Howard's judiciary, soon to be all white again.

Donna Hill Staton, Howard County's first black judge, lost her seat on the Circuit Court in a tight, three-way finish a year after Gov. Parris N. Glendening appointed her and Diane O. Leasure to the court. Leasure and District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman -- one of two challengers -- beat Hill Staton for 15-year seats on the Circuit Court.

Though all three top finishers were Democrats, a strange mix of politics put prominent Republicans in visible, powerful roles on both campaigns.

When the campaign turned sharply negative in recent weeks, Republicans who for years had sharpened their tongues on Democrats were suddenly stinging each other -- opening a rift that party leaders hope to begin healing at a unity breakfast Tuesday.

It is a new challenge for the Republicans, who, in the span of a decade, went from virtual powerlessness to control of the county in 1994, when they won a majority on the County Council and re-elected a Republican county executive.

"Success breeds itself into squabbling," said Council Chairman Darrel E. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican, two weeks before the election. "It's the natural progression."

Publicly, party leaders are already talking a good game on unity, putting the past behind them. But two of the sharpest rivals in the campaign -- Del. Robert L. Flanagan on the challengers' side and Councilman Dennis R. Schrader on the sitting judges' side -- are preparing to battle in 1998's Republican primary for county executive.

At least three other prominent Republicans may campaign for that office as well.

To add to the mix, County Executive Charles I. Ecker -- who stayed out of the judges' race -- is considering a run for governor against Ellen R. Sauerbrey, an ally of Flanagan and Del. Robert H. Kittleman, the grandfather of Howard's Republican party.

Party leaders hope Tuesday's breakfast will restore unity, at least until the next election. "This is our No. 1 challenge," Kittleman said.

But one county Republican Party activist, noting the battle wounds from the judges' race, privately predicted that the frictions will only end with a shake-up in the party's inner circle: "I think they'll heal by [some] people being on the outside."

The 1998 election year could also prove decisive for Howard's African-American community.

The electorate's rejection of the county's first black judge has raised the red flag for some regarding an African-American's chances of being elected to a countywide position, said the Rev. A. F. Turner, head of the county's African-American Coalition.

No African-American has been elected countywide since 1982 when Councilman C. Vernon Gray first won his seat and William Manning won his bid for the school board. Gray, a District 2 Democrat, has talked of running for county executive in two years.

The coalition -- an umbrella group of about 50 black organizations -- has scheduled a countywide town meeting in January to discuss race and politics in Howard, Turner said.

"We're channeling our anger and frustration into doing something constructive for the next election. We don't want the same consequence in 1998," he said. "We have to look at the issues negatively impacting African-American candidates, such as racism."

In the meantime, Turner said, the group will turn its attention to advocating that Glendening appoint an African-American to at least one of two vacancies on the county's District Court left by a retiring judge and Gelfman's elevation to Circuit Court.

"We're going to keep that issue before Governor Glendening and ask for a commitment that he will do all he can so an African-American will hold one of the seats," Turner said.

A local judicial nominating commission has forwarded a list of seven applicants -- including five white men and two women, one of whom is black -- for the first vacancy to Glendening.

The coalition quickly followed with a letter of its own opposing the list, saying it was not reflective of the diversity of the applicants. Of 16 applicants, six were white men, five of whom were recommended to the governor.

Some Howard state delegates and senators also have embraced the concept of diversifying the district bench. Early last month, Howard's three state senators recommended four applicants to Glendening from the judicial nominating commission's list -- three white men and an African-American woman.

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