Black candidate gets 2nd chance at judgeship

Wright is reappointed after defeat last year in Circuit Court vote

January 16, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Alexander Wright Jr., defeated for election to the Baltimore County Circuit Court last year, will get a second chance next year, Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced yesterday.

Wright, who became the first black to serve on the county's Circuit Court when Glendening first appointed him in 1998, lost to a white challenger in March in a campaign tinged with racial politics and complicated by a city senator's intervention.

Glendening said yesterday that he has reappointed Wright, who lost to District Judge Robert N. Dugan, because he is "one of the state's best trial judges."

"He got caught up in racial and partisan politics," Glendening said. "We all know what it was about."

Wright, 51, will serve until the election next year, when he will again face election for a 15-year term. He is a former District Court judge who has worked for the state attorney general's office for many years.

Wright, who has been off the bench since Dec. 11, found out about his reappointment at 3:15 p.m. "I was ecstatic. It's a job that I love," he said. "I'm just champing at the bit to return to work."

His surprising defeat, the first since 1938 for a sitting Baltimore County judge, caused considerable dismay among his colleagues on the court.

Circuit Judge Barbara Kerr Howe, saying she was "devastated" by the loss, moved up her retirement to create a vacancy for Wright's reappointment.

Glendening's original appointment of Wright was a breakthrough in the county, where the Circuit Court has long been a white male bastion. Howe's retirement left the court with 14 white men and a white woman.

Most judicial appointments in Maryland go uncontested, but Wright and Circuit Judge Kathleen G. Cox faced a challenge from Dugan, a Republican district judge who claimed he was being barred from advancement for partisan reasons.

All three candidates filed for election on the Republican and Democratic primary ballots, as is customary for circuit judges in Maryland. In the March primary last year, Wright finished third on both party ballots behind Cox, his ticket mate, and Dugan.

Wright's defeat, the second loss by a sitting black judge in Maryland in recent years, brought calls from black lawmakers and the governor for a change in the way circuit judges are selected.

The race was complicated by the intervention of Baltimore state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, who is black and whose campaign organization distributed fliers endorsing Dugan and Wright.

Wright said at the time that the flier was distributed without his knowledge.

Mitchell said Dugan is a longtime family friend.

The city lawmaker's intrusion into county politics outraged Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Democrat who represents the neighborhoods where Mitchell's fliers were distributed. Kelley said Mitchell cost Wright the election by gaining more votes for Dugan on the Democratic Party line.

Glendening and Kelley predicted yesterday that Wright will win next year even if he is challenged, because state officeholders will be running that year and many of them support his re-election.

"We will be active, we will be with him, and we will carry him on our tickets," Kelley said. "I will personally make sure the people in my district know the implications of spreading their votes too thin."

Noting that the county's black population is growing, Wright said he believes it's important to have a black on the bench.

The judge said he hopes his election will go unchallenged next year. "But if it is contested, then I'm working hard to win," he said.

Sun staff writers Sarah Koenig and Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

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