Courthouse races viewed as civic duty Challengers vying for register of wills, circuit court clerk

'Somebody's got to do it'

Less-publicized races called tough to fund and tougher to win

October 29, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

An article in the Howard County edition of The Sun yesterday incorrectly reported the primary vote received by Howard County Register of Wills Kay Hartleb. She received 8,782 votes to 3,077 for her Republican opponent. In the uncontested Democratic primary, Patricia S. Gordon received 13,640 votes.

The Sun regrets the error.

They do not seek judgeships. They aren't vying to be top prosecutors and there's no gun to sport.

In fact, many observers agree the positions probably are the least glamorous jobs in the Howard County circuit courthouse. But Leslie J. Cale and Patricia S. Gordon consider it their civic duty to vie against incumbents for the seats of clerk of the Circuit Court and register of wills, respectively, in the general election Nov. 3.

"Somebody's got to do it," said Gordon, a retired New York principal who lives in Columbia's Dorsey Search village. "I've been active in the Democratic Party all my life. I thought it was interesting and was something I could handle effectively and efficiently."


Her entrance into the race in July surprised some Republicans -- and even Democrats -- who see Republican Kay Hartleb, the register of wills since 1986, as a strong incumbent. Gordon made a strong showing in the September primary with about 13,000 votes, compared with Hartleb's 4,100.

For Cale, a Democrat running against Republican Margaret D. Rappaport, who has been clerk of the Circuit Court since 1990, the race is a matter of fulfilling her obligations to co-workers and friends in the office. She is undaunted by her opponent's widespread name recognition and political connections. In last month's primary, Cale received about 10,200 votes, compared with Rappaport's 11,500.

"People in the clerk's office who I know came to me four years ago and said they weren't happy with how things were being run," said Cale, 41, a court reporter. She said that because she doesn't work for her opponent, there is little animosity or fear for criticizing her employer. "I work for a judge, so I'm the only one who is protected and can run against [Rappaport]."

Political analysts say the less-publicized races such as these often are the toughest to fund and even harder for newcomers to win -- typically because the average voter has little or no idea of what the positions' duties involve. The four candidates promote themselves as being qualified for the positions because of their years in public service.

"The people who usually run for these offices are folks who have some sort of career that led them there," said Brad Coker, a Columbia pollster. "The campaigns are about who's got the best qualifications to run the office. If you're the incumbent and you haven't made anybody mad, you usually get re-elected."

The reality of the duties is somewhat complex. Both positions involve dealing with the nuts and bolts of keeping track of thousands of pages of documents that keep the courthouse running smoothly.

The register of wills processes more than 800 estates and wills a year, according to Hartleb. Her primary responsibility is to help a grieving person settle a deceased relative's will -- a sometimes -- tedious and often complicated process. As head of the office, Hartleb also coordinates the efforts and procedures of the county's Orphans' Court, which oversees probate matters.

"People come in here and they are scared, they are sad and they usually leave saying we made it easier," said Hartleb, 62. "It's a challenge because each estate is different. I'm most proud of the caring, helpful service my office gives."

Hartleb, who has raised $4,500 in her campaign, talks about her record of improving office technology, including an imaging system that allows clerks to scan in hand-written wills and statewide legislation to streamline the probate process.

Her challenger, Gordon, 74, says she is confident she has the management skills to take over the job -- although she admits to not knowing much about the office's specific duties. Gordon said she came to the county when her son started a law career in the area almost five years ago.

A New York City native, Gordon graduated from Hunter College with a history and political science degree. For 28 years, she was a teacher, guidance counselor and administrator in New York public schools. She served as an elected president of a Long Island school board in the late 1980s.

"This is an administrative position," Gordon said. "It requires working cooperatively with your colleagues and creating policies rules and regulations and keeping an eye on what's going on.

"If you're competent and effective in one administrative field, it carries over," Gordon said.

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