Judges' race sparks state review, turf war

Payments to workers by senator alleged in Baltimore County election

March 09, 2000|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The defeat of a sitting Baltimore County judge in Tuesday's primary -- the first since 1938 -- has prompted a review by the state prosecutor, a spat between two lawmakers in Annapolis and regret in the courthouse where the new judge will work.

Judge Alexander Wright Jr. lost on both the Democratic and Republican ballots to Judge Kathleen Cox, a recent appointee to the Circuit Court, and District Judge Robert N. Dugan, who decided to run after he was passed over with Cox's appointment.

State prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli is investigating reports that some campaign workers in Baltimore County were paid to distribute fliers in Tuesday's primary, in violation of state law.

Montanarelli said yesterday that he is reviewing reports that campaign workers at polling places in predominantly African-American neighborhoods on Baltimore County's west side were paid up to $25 each to distribute fliers printed by state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV's campaign committee.

The flier asked voters to support Dugan and Wright, even though Wright -- who is black -- ran on a joint ticket with Cox.

Workers asked to stop

Wright said that the flier was printed without his knowledge and that he learned about it when he showed up to work the polls on Election Day. He said that when he asked workers to stop distributing the fliers, they told him they were being paid by the Mitchell organization.

The flier carried "Friends of Clarence M. Mitchell IV" as its authority.

Mitchell yesterday denied paying workers for their help on primary election day.

In a prepared statement, Mitchell said that he agreed to support Dugan because the 58-year-old Republican is a longtime family friend who worked years ago with Mitchell's grandmother, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, and his uncle, Michael Mitchell Sr.

Mitchell said he included Wright on his flier because he wanted to support "two people who have a longtime track record of working with and being fair to the African-American community," according to the statement.

But Mitchell's efforts angered state Sen. Delores G. Kelley, the 10th District Democrat who backed Wright and whose district includes the polling places covered by Mitchell's workers.

Kelley, who confronted Mitchell in Annapolis on Tuesday, called Mitchell's actions "stupid."

"I just wouldn't think of going into any other senator's district and trying to influence an election that I was not involved in," Kelley said. "I just thought it was the height of arrogance on his part."

Mitchell's use of African-American campaign workers to distribute the Wright-Dugan flier in African-American neighborhoods ended up hurting Wright's election chances, she said. It helped Dugan win support -- and pull ahead on the Democratic ballot -- in communities where he otherwise would have received few votes, she said.

"Race is definitely a factor here," Kelley said. "We'd be foolhardy to say it wasn't."

Mitchell wrote a letter to Kelley after she confronted him, apologizing "for the lack of respect that I offered to you on this election day ballot issue."

But Mitchell said in the letter that if Kelley had objected to his working for Dugan and Wright, he would have helped them anyway.

Judges cross-file

Wright, Cox and Dugan all cross-filed, running in both party's primaries.

On the Democratic ballot, Cox received 44,198 votes, Dugan 36,169 and Wright 30,425. On the Republican ticket, Dugan garnered 26,930 votes, Cox 20,951 and Wright 14,202.

Wright will remain on the bench until Dugan is sworn in to the Circuit Court in November.

Wright said yesterday that he has no specific plans, other than "looking for another job."

He attributed the loss not to the flier, but to his position as third candidate of the three judges listed alphabetically on the primary ballot. He also noted his lack of name recognition despite months of intensive campaigning.

In response to Wright's loss, Gov. Parris N. Glendening said he was "disappointed and concerned. There were clearly forces at work playing on the worst traditions of racial politics. I don't believe that reflects the values of the people of Baltimore County. I know it doesn't reflect the values of Maryland."

Courthouse and county officials expressed regret yesterday at losing Wright from a Circuit Court bench where he has served since June 1998.

Chief Judge Edward A. Dewaters Jr. said Wright is "a very dedicated, conscientious and hard-working judge who handled all the cases assigned to him extremely well."

Sun staff writers Joan Jacobson and Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

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