Challenge for Weathersbee

Democratic state's attorney faces GOP lawyer set on unseating him

June 25, 2006|By ANDREA F. SIEGEL | ANDREA F. SIEGEL,SUN REPORTER

Four years ago, Republican lawyer David W. Fischer mounted a well-financed challenge to a six-term congressman from his own party, U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest. Fischer lost in the GOP primary by a 3-2 margin.

Now Fischer has his sights on the post of another longtime official, five-term State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee, a Democrat.

Political observers say Fischer, 36, could present a formidable challenge to Weathersbee, 62, in the Republican-trending county but that he has an uphill battle.

Fischer made his announcement at a time of uncertain national and state politics that could figure into a distinctly local contest and in a county where voters are known for splitting tickets, said Dan Nataf, head of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College.

Chuck Gast, chairman of the county's Republican Central Committee, views Weathersbee as vulnerable. He also noted that the incumbent won four years ago by 4 percentage points against an opponent who barely campaigned.

Weathersbee had won by a wide margin four years earlier.

"I think [Weathersbee] is going to have to campaign as hard as he ever campaigned," Nataf said.

Fischer spent more than $300,000 of his own money in his bid to unseat Gilchrest. He also received help from the conservative Club for Growth, a Washington-based group that ran TV and radio ads saying Gilchrest was too liberal.

Fischer, who moved to Anne Arundel three years ago from Baltimore County, is criticizing Weathersbee for the handling of two recent high-profile cases, one of which Fischer won for his client. He also faulted Weathersbee's management of the office as outmoded.

"I don't know if he is going to be able to take what may be perceived as process failures and turn them into a critique of Weathersbee's office overall," Nataf said, especially when explanations of those processes are "insider stuff."

Nevertheless, he said, individual cases can have "strong emotional appeal" if they have staying power and resound with the public.

Fischer, who has been in private practice since shortly after he graduated from law school in 1995, represented Jacob Fortney, a young white man who was acquitted of manslaughter in the 2004 death of Noah Jamahl Jones, a black Pasadena teenager, in a melee.

The case was a no-win for Weathersbee, who drew criticism from both sides for dropping charges brought by police, then overseeing the indictment of Fortney and five other white men, then ending the remaining cases after Fortney's acquittal.

Fischer also contends that Weathersbee's office botched the murder case against Leeander Jerome Blake, who was accused in the 2002 carjacking that ended in the killing of Straughan Lee Griffin. Blake was never tried.

"I believe they [prosecutors] are losing these cases because they are not involved from the inception," Fischer said Friday. He said he would have prosecutors' involvement start at homicide scenes.

"There wasn't anything wrong with those two cases except the outcome," said the soft-spoken Weathersbee. "They were handled properly."

His office sends prosecutors to crime scenes when police request it, he said.

Weathersbee, who has held the job for 18 years, said his management of the office includes numerous programs that provide, for example, victim assistance and fraud-alert education for the elderly.

A prosecutor for more than three decades, Weathersbee is well-known and has deep roots in the county.

Nataf said Weathersbee's lack of political ambition for higher office can come across as a virtue, given Fischer's earlier candidacy.

He said the political atmosphere has changed since 2002, when Democrats were running away from Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's gubernatorial bid and Republicans were running strong generally. Polls show dissatisfaction with President Bush, and statewide politics have yet to entirely shake out, though Democrats are more united now, he said.

Carl O. Snowden, a political leader and aide to Democratic County Executive Janet S. Owens, said he expects a "contentious, controversial and divisive campaign" for state's attorney.

The Jamahl Jones case, in which the local NAACP chapter is seeking a U.S. Department of Justice investigation, focuses on racial issues.

"That can cut both ways," Snowden said.

Weathersbee and Fischer are courting black voters, who make up about 14 percent of the electorate, he said.

Weathersbee can't take the traditionally Democratic-leaning African-Americans for granted, but black voters will be wary of being exploited by either party, Snowden said.

Still, Nataf said, each candidate has the additional challenge of trying to be heard over the din of the more prominent races for governor, comptroller and U.S. Senate.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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