When Baltimore County voters elected Circuit Judge Vicki Ballou-Watts to a 15-year term Tuesday, they answered an uncomfortable question that had been hovering around county elections for at least four years.
They were willing, even eager, to elect an African-American to a countywide position.
Before Ballou-Watts' victory, no black Baltimore County candidate had ever won in a countywide vote. And the election defeats of Judge Alexander Wright Jr. - a widely respected judge who is African-American - in 2000 and 2002 were in the minds of those watching this year's judicial race.
"There was a lot of controversy about [Wright's defeats]," said Patricia Cook-Ferguson, president of the Baltimore County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "Now that Vicki has won, it will put people's minds to more of an ease."
Ballou-Watts, who was appointed to the Circuit Court in 2002 after more than three years as a District Court judge, won Tuesday's election with her three fellow incumbents - Judges Dana M. Levitz, Susan M. Souder and John G. Turnbull II. The four ran as the "sitting judges" ticket.
Judges run in both the Republican and Democratic primaries. With four seats open, the top four vote-getters in both primaries move on to the general election.
Yesterday, each of the incumbent judges got almost twice as many votes as either of the challengers - attorney Brenda A. Clark, who is also black, and retired Pikesville lawyer David L. Saltzman, who is white. In the Democratic primary, Ballou-Watts received more votes - 49,537 - than any other candidate.
"I'm most happy for Vicki," said Philip N. Tirabassi, an attorney who ran the judges' campaign. "The time has come for an African-American to have won a countywide seat."
Circuit Court judges are appointed by the governor, but must then win a countywide election to stay on the bench.
It was those elections that forced Judge Wright off the bench.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening first appointed Wright in 1998. After the judge lost his first election in 2000, Glendening reappointed him. But in 2002, after a bitter race that split the legal community, Wright again came up last on the ballot.
Many in the legal community said they were devastated, and wondered whether race had played a part in his defeat. Others speculated that his name was a factor in the loss, since it was listed last on the alphabetically ordered ballot.
This year, the sitting judges vowed to reverse the trend. For months, they have been campaigning relentlessly, visiting political clubs and attending functions. They bought radio ads and, in the week before the campaign, television commercials.
Ballou-Watts, in particular, was tireless in her campaigning, Tirabassi said.
"I passed out literature for the sitting judges everywhere I went," she said yesterday. "I'm sure people were tired of seeing me."
Ballou-Watts, 45, of Reisterstown, is praised by lawyers as a measured and intelligent judge. She said the full implication of her victory Tuesday has not sunk in.
"It has been a very long, grueling process for me," she said. "I'm glad it's over. I'm not a politician. I feel most comfortable in the courtroom."