Candidates begin vying for prized court posts Balto. County races for Orphans' Court, register of wills heat up

July 20, 1998|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

Three years out of four, the guardians of justice in the Towson courthouse keep drug dealers and deadbeat parents in check, settle divorce and estate disputes and track mountains of legal files.

In the fourth year, they also become political animals -- and it's that time again -- with everyone from the state's attorney to the judges of the Orphans' Court hitting the campaign trail.

Thirty-one people have filed this election year for the courthouse offices that always seem so popular -- and where sometimes obscure incumbents can prove tough to unseat.

Among the top political prizes are the jobs held by such longtime office holders as State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor, who is running unopposed for a seventh term in her $119,000-a-year job, and Suzanne Mensh, the $64,500-a-year clerk of the court, who is up for her fourth term.

"I think the prestige draws more people than the money," said retired Circuit Judge Leonard S. Jacobson, who hated campaigning for re-election. "As clerk of the court, you have a lot of patronage power, and you could do a lot of favors for people."

As for the judges' positions, "I think it's the prestige of being called judge. People enjoy that. I enjoyed it."

The courthouse jobs are also fairly secure "because those posts are rarely defeated once there's an incumbent. Suzanne Mensh has been elected almost forever," he said of the court clerk, who has held various courthouse offices for 35 years.

This year, the hottest contests appear to be for register of wills and Orphans' Court, where wills are filed and family disputes over estates of the dead are decided.

A chain reaction was set off when Democrat Peter J. Basilone -- the register of wills for the last 20 years -- decided not to run for re-election because of illness.

With his $75,000-a-year job up for grabs, the Orphans' Court's chief judge, Grace G. Connolly, a Democrat, resigned -- as required by law -- to run for Basilone's position. Also in the race are one other Democrat and two Republicans who want to run the office, which has 30 politically appointed employees.

Nine Democrats and six Republicans have filed for the three $30,000-a-year, part-time Orphans' Court jobs, which do not require a law degree. They include the two incumbent judges, zTC Republican Sandra L. O'Connell-Hughes and Democrat Julie L. Ensor.

Rumors have begun to circulate about whether the governor will appoint someone to fill Connolly's vacancy and whether Basilone will finish his term.

In any case, Connolly, who has been an Orphans' Court judge for 12 years, hopes she has an advantage in the campaign for register of wills because of her experience.

"I feel I'm in the best position to do that because I am familiar with the policies of the register of wills office and worked closely with the current register of wills," said Connolly, who is looking at a long summer of campaigning.

The sheriff's race also might be a lively one, with four Democrats vying to face eight-year Republican incumbent Norman M. Pepersack Jr. in the general election. The job pays $70,000 to oversee a staff that makes 1,600 arrests a year and guards the courthouse.

Two of the Democrats running are former deputies who worked for Pepersack -- including lawyer E. John McClernan, who was nearly jailed last August for failing to pay $10,000 in child support.

McClernan lost a bid to unseat Pepersack in 1994 -- but beat the sheriff in a pistol-shooting contest staged for publicity.

Another Democrat seeking the sheriff's job is Anne K. Strasdaukas, whom Pepersack fired last December for failing to turn her police radio in on time. She is suing to get her job back.

In the race for clerk of the court, two people are trying to unseat 12-year incumbent Democrat Mensh for the job overseeing 114 employees who account for criminal and civil case files, land records, marriage licenses and trusts.

Mensh's opponent in the Democratic primary is William T. Hill, a clerk for Circuit Judge J. William Hinkel. The Republican candidate is Ken D. Ridgeway II, who holds the No. 3 job in the Howard County Circuit Court as the assistant chief deputy clerk.

In the race for state's attorney, lawyer Wallace Kleid, a Democrat, filed but later withdrew as a candidate to unseat O'Connor, the Republican incumbent, who has been in office since 1975.

In all the courthouse campaigns, the two incumbents who have been campaigning the longest -- and who have raised the most money -- have the least to worry about.

Circuit judges J. William Hinkel and John F. Fader II have been running for re-election for the last two years, raising nearly $100,000, gaining widespread support from the legal community, and eating at several political fund-raisers a week -- sometimes two breakfasts a day.

The only thing that would complete their campaign for the $108,000-a-year job would be an opponent.

After the filing deadline expired last week, Fader celebrated his unopposed campaign by joining Weight Watchers.

"Until the last minute, you can't take anything for granted," said the judge, while acknowledging the difficulty of unseating an incumbent judge.

The last time someone beat a sitting judge in Baltimore County was in 1938 -- but that person committed suicide before taking office, according to an interview with the late Judge John E. Raine published in the county's quarterly newsletter.

Four days later, the losing incumbent got his job back.

Pub Date: 7/20/98

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