Circuit Court race brings up specter of race

The Political Game

Election: Second loss by a sitting black judge raises questions about the system.

March 14, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

FOR THE SECOND TIME in four years, a black Circuit Court judge has lost to a white opponent in a contested election -- much to the dismay of many in Annapolis.

In 1996, Donna Hill Staton, Howard County's first black judge, was knocked off by Lenore R. Gelfman in a sometimes ugly race. On March 7, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Alexander Wright Jr. lost his bid for a 15-year term -- defeated by District Judge Robert N. Dugan. Wright was the first and only black circuit judge in the county, which has an African-American population of about 16 percent.

The two defeats might not constitute a trend, but black legislators say it's time to revisit the issue of contested Circuit Court elections.

Under Maryland's somewhat quirky system, the governor appoints judges to the Circuit Court. But the newly appointed circuit judges must run for a full 15-year term in the next election. Any lawyer older than age 30 who wants a seat on the Circuit Court bench can challenge a sitting judge in those elections.

Critics of contested elections have said over the years that it's unseemly to force judges to run political campaigns. A high-powered commission that studied the state's judiciary recommended four years ago that contested elections be abolished.

But in such discussions, African-American lawmakers have consistently been among those most avidly defending contested elections. The theory holds that challenging a sitting white judge has given blacks their best shot over the years to land seats on the Circuit Court.

But, as the recent election results show, the system can work both for and against black judges.

"It may be time to revisit this issue," a weary Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden said last week when asked about Wright's loss.

The African-American legislator from East Baltimore, who heads the city's Senate delegation, said he was discouraged by the losses of Staton and Wright and what those defeats suggest about racial attitudes in the state.

"I just thought we were further along in voting for highly qualified people regardless of race," McFadden said.

The bottom line, in McFadden's view: "The old-boy network is fighting for survival."

Having seen two of his appointees defeated, Gov. Parris N. Glendening is also saying it's time to examine the system, a position he has held for years. "It seems to me this cries out for a change in elections," he said.

He minced no words in describing what led to Wright's loss.

"I don't believe there's any way to get around what happened, except to say there was a good deal of racism," Glendening said.

The General Assembly will not have time to consider this issue in the four weeks left in its annual session. But look for lawmakers to bring it up in the future.

Skins training camp move could prove expensive

Legislators were startled to learn recently that the new owner of the Washington Redskins might move the team's summer training camp from Frostburg in Western Maryland to suburban Virginia.

You may recall that Maryland spent more than $70 million to help former Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke build a stadium in Landover.

As part of that deal, the team agreed to set up a summer camp in Frostburg, in the district of House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. The team has brought tourists and money to the economically depressed Cumberland- Frostburg area.

Redskins owner Daniel Snyder figures he can generate extra income with a new and improved training camp closer to the team's fans in the Washington area.

But at what cost?

His talk of moving the team's training base out of Maryland has irritated state legislators, particularly Taylor.

Looking ahead a bit, it's not hard to think of a time when the Redskins will need assistance -- perhaps a road project or a change in state law -- from the General Assembly. Just how eager will Taylor and other legislators be to help the team after the Redskins pull up stakes in Western Maryland?

The team is enmeshed in a tax dispute with the state over how much amusement tax the Redskins should pay on luxury box seats.

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a close ally of Taylor's, ruled against the team, a decision that could cost the Redskins about $500,000 a year. The team has appealed to the Maryland Tax Court.

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