WJZ-TV changes policy after pressure from Howard black coalition Judicial campaign ads are focus of dispute

December 15, 1996|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Howard County's African-American community has pressured WJZ-TV into changing a policy that allowed reporter Dick Gelfman to rent station equipment to help his wife battle -- and ultimately defeat -- the county's first black judge.

After agreeing to the new policy last week, WJZ-TV General Manager Marcellus Alexander announced it -- through a spokesman -- at a forum sponsored by Howard's African American Coalition in Columbia yesterday.

"To avoid even the hint of any perceived or real impropriety," Alexander's statement said, "WJZ-TV will not solicit -- or accept -- any political advertising production."

Neither Alexander nor Gelfman returned phone messages left yesterday at their homes.

Coalition leaders yesterday called the change in WJZ-TV policy a victory but vowed to push ahead with formal complaints against the station with the U.S. Justice Department, the state election board and the Federal Communications Commission.

At the heart of the complaints is Gelfman's rental of a WJZ-TV camera and editing equipment to make cable television ads for his wife, Judge Lenore R. Gelfman, in her battle for the Circuit Court bench. She won one of two seats in the four-way race Nov. 5.

Among the losers in that election was Donna Hill Staton, whom Gov. Parris N. Glendening had appointed as Howard's first African-American judge a year earlier.

That defeat brought cries of racism from county black leaders and others, prompting yesterday's forum organized by the African-American coalition, a group of about 50 black organizations in Howard. About 70 people attended the meeting at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Religious Center.

Speakers complained that Hill Staton's white supporters in the Democratic Party didn't do enough and that her rivals -- Gelfman and local attorney Jonathan Scott Smith -- used campaign tactics to exploit racial divisions, a charge the Gelfman-Smith ticket vehemently disputes.

"This is supposed to be the place where diversity is embraced," said the Rev. Robert A. F. Turner, coalition president, "but it seems as if there is a gap, a gulf between the diversity that is communicated in general conversation and the results of general elections."

Speakers also called for renewed commitment -- time and money -- to electing or appointing blacks to top government jobs, including to one of the two open spots on Howard's District Court, which is lower than Circuit Court. Those seats await Glendening appointments.

"Black people have to sacrifice," said John Clark, a Columbia attorney. "There are people who pay more a month for a car note than they've ever given to a campaign."

Howard County has not elected an African-American to a countywide office since 1982, when Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, was elected. He has been re-elected, but the County Council is now divided into districts. William Manning was also elected to the school board in 1982 but later lost that seat.

Racial politics lurked in the Circuit Court battle from the beginning. Glendening declared the need for diversity last year when he appointed Hill Staton and Diane O. Leasure to join what had been an all-white, all-male court.

When Gelfman and Smith challenged the appointments, they complained that Glendening had put diversity above qualifications.

What followed was a bitter, yearlong struggle in which race -- and charges of racism -- were never far below the surface.

At yesterday's forum, pollster Brad Coker of Mason / Dixon Political-Media Research in Columbia -- and a Hill Staton supporter -- repeated his claim that Gelfman and Smith ran a campaign exploiting racial divisions.

"This was probably the most blatantly racist campaign I've seen run in this county in 20 years," Coker said.

Smith and Gelfman have disputed the charge that their tactics were racist. They said Leasure enjoyed a better reputation among lawyers and that Hill Staton lost votes by being last on a ballot organized by alphabetical order.

Reached by phone yesterday, Smith defended his campaign's tactics and said it was Leasure and Hill Staton's campaign that focused on race.

"How in the world do you claim it's racist when the white male came in fourth?" said Smith, referring to himself.

But speakers at the forum were nearly unanimous in suggesting that race -- if not outright racism -- was a major factor in Hill Staton's loss.

Cheryl Miller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said African-Americans are more likely to win elections if they run campaigns that avoid the subject of race. But she said Hill Staton's opponents emphasized it.

Under the new policy, WJZ-TV will not supply or rent equipment to any candidate, and no station employee has permission to work on any aspect of political ad production while on station time.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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