Attorneys mull bids against McLendon Republican, Democrat may challenge county state's attorney in '98

October 29, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Two Howard County attorneys -- one from each party -- are considering challenging Republican State's Attorney Marna McLendon in the 1998 race for the county's top law enforcement job.

Democrat Timothy J. McCrone, 44, and Republican Jonathan Scott Smith, 41, both said yesterday they may run against McLendon.

McLendon took office in 1994 with a tough-on-crime pledge but has been criticized for her handling of some cases and has seen a series of prosecutors leave the office.

Yesterday, after another prosecutor resigned, McCrone focused on those issues in campaign-style comments.

"There's a certain considerable dissatisfaction with the way that the Howard County state's attorney's office is being managed," McCrone said. "I'm carefully considering that possibility [of running for state's attorney]."

Smith, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for Circuit Court judge last year, said: "There are some members of the legal and political communities -- whom I respect -- that have asked me to consider [running for state's attorney]."

The attorneys' statements came as another prosecutor resigned from McLendon's office, the eighth to leave since February of last year. There are 22 prosecutor positions in the circuit and district courts.

McLendon -- who has been in office for almost three years -- said yesterday that she welcomes a challenge by McCrone or Smith.

"I am going to run the race I have to," McLendon said.

McLendon disputed McCrone's contention that prosecutors were leaving because of her management style.

"I'm not worried about the turnover," McLendon said. "People [in the office] are happy."

The state's attorney's office has traditionally been a steppingstone for attorneys, and many leave to go into private practice, McLendon said.

She added: "If some people are unhappy, it's because we're asking them to do a tough job."

Stephen J. Musselman, a prosecutor in Howard District Court for the past 18 months, submitted his resignation Monday morning. McLendon praised Musselman's work in her office. His resignation takes effect in mid-November.

Musselman, who worked for two years in the Los Angeles County district attorney's office before coming to Howard County, said yesterday that he will go into private practice, focusing on representing abused and exploited children. He plans to open an office in Columbia.

"I thought I was going to be a prosecutor all my life, but this opportunity was too difficult to turn down," said Musselman, 29. "I look forward to a good relationship with the state's attorney's office."

Turnover is likely target

If McCrone or Smith -- both well-known attorneys in the county -- run, the issue of the turnover rate is likely to enter into the campaign rhetoric.

In 1995, nine prosecutors left the office, six of whom McLendon asked to resign shortly after she was elected on a campaign promise to change the office's operations. McLendon succeeded Democrat William R. Hymes, who had been state's attorney for 16 years before retiring in 1994.

Jail case questioned

The turnover rate is one potential issue. McCrone was involved in another, defending two jail officers who were charged with assaulting inmates in the Howard County Detention Center. Many felt that McLendon should not have brought the cases to court, and even the judge in one case questioned why the charges had gone so far.

Jim Kraft, president of the Columbia Democratic Club, said the office uses poor discretion in deciding what cases to prosecute and that McLendon had failed to fulfill her campaign pledge to overhaul operations.

"She just has not improved the office. She has improved the public relations part of the office," said Kraft, referring to the highly visible role McLendon has taken on juvenile crime and community initiatives.

Kraft said he and McCrone have discussed the possibility of McCrone running.

"I think Tim McCrone would be an excellent candidate for us," Kraft said yesterday. "He has the experience. He really knows law enforcement. He has a great relationship with the Police Department."

McLendon sees progress

McLendon countered that her office has made great progress, pointing out that cases are now screened in District Court as well as Circuit Court so prosecutors can make better decisions. She said prosecutors now have established policies and guidelines that make the office a more professional operation.

She noted such victories as the convictions of Timothy Chase, who raped a Columbia girl behind the Howard County Central Library, and Curtis Aden Jamison, who strangled a Columbia teen-ager.

"I think we have made tremendous strides forward," McLendon said.

Carol Arscott, a GOP political consultant who is close to McLendon, said she is a strong candidate.

"Marna is held in high esteem among the Republican Party in Howard County," Arscott said. "I think the emphasis she has placed on juvenile crime really hits home with the voters and strikes a chord."

Of McCrone's statements, Arscott said: "I would expect a Democrat to say that. They are not going to say everything is hunky-dory."

Pub Date: 10/29/97

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