Contest for bench has racial overtones

County Circuit candidate distributes flier hinting at link to black incumbent

March 08, 2000|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Three judges were vying for two seats on the Baltimore County Circuit Court bench last night in a primary election tinged with racial overtones that suggested a heated race this fall.

The ticket of Judge Alexander Wright Jr. and Judge Kathleen Cox, the two recent appointees to the Circuit Court bench, spent a combined $120,000 in a race against District Judge Robert N. Dugan, who was expected to spend $50,000 in the primary.

The two candidates who received the most votes in the Republican and Democratic primary ballots will run in the November general election. All three cross-filed as Democratic and Republican candidates.

The contest was calm until yesterday, when fliers were distributed at polling places in the county's predominantly African-American neighborhoods on the west side that implied Dugan and Wright were running mates.

Wright, who became the county's first African-American Circuit Court judge when he was appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening in 1998, ran a joint campaign with Cox, who was only the second woman named to the 16-member Circuit Court bench.

Wright and Cox often praised each other, appeared together at numerous civic meetings and forums, shared a Web site and a campaign fund during the past year.

Wright, who had served as a District Court judge with Dugan, said he believes that Dugan, who is white, allowed their names to be placed on a joint flier yesterday. Wright said he is furious about it.

"If someone sat on the District Court with you, you thought of him as a friend, and then he did something like this, used your name without authorization, does that sound like someone who you would want as a friend?" he said.

Dugan declined to comment when reached by phone last night, but his campaign manager, James Temple Jr., said the campaign knew nothing about the flier before it appeared at polling places yesterday.

"I understand there are some people who want Dugan and Wright elected, and they are promoting those two as their candidates, but that effort has nothing to do with our campaign," Temple said.

Wright said he learned about the flier when he showed up to work the polling places near his Reisterstown neighborhood yesterday morning. He went to seven polling places and found workers distributing the fliers at all seven.

"He only has this in the African-American community," Wright said. "They had shopping bags full of them. The shopping bags were even marked, `Dugan and Wright.' "

Wright said he asked the campaign workers to stop distributing the fliers, and they told him they were being paid $25 each to distribute the materials.

"One gentlemen told us he couldn't stop, because he had to keep handing them out to get paid," Wright said.

State election laws prohibit paying campaign workers to distribute literature on Election Day, state election officials said.

Temple said the campaign has put out one piece of literature, a one-page sheet with Dugan's photo that lists Temple as the authority for the flier.

The flier implying that Wright is working with Dugan lists "Friends of Clarence M. Mitchell IV" as the authority.

Mitchell, a state senator who represents West Baltimore, did not return phone calls to his Annapolis office yesterday.

Poll workers distributing the flier at polling places in the Randallstown area said they were recruited by the Mitchell organization. But they denied being paid for their efforts. "I was asked to help out, and I'm helping out, that's all," said Joseph Johnson, a volunteer who was distributing the flier at the Old Court Elementary School.

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