One candidate is a personal injury lawyer who earned millions over the years by beckoning prospective clients with TV ads that invited, "Let's talk about it."
The other, a former county prosecutor running with the support of his current boss, attorney and Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, emphasizes his work experience and describes himself as a "serious guy for a serious job."
The two men, Stephen L. Miles and Scott D. Shellenberger, are vying for the Democratic nomination for Baltimore County state's attorney -- a job for which there has not been a contested election in more than two decades.
The primary will determine which man will face off in November against Republican Stephen Bailey, the hand-picked successor of longtime county State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor.
O'Connor, whose death penalty policy has attracted national attention, is retiring this year at the end of her eighth term as the county's top prosecutor.
In a county where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2 to 1, the Democratic Party hasn't even challenged O'Connor since 1982.
"For everyone in our office, this was like, `Wow.' We forget that this is a political process because we never had to go through an election before," said James O'C. Gentry Jr., who worked as a prosecutor for O'Connor for 22 years before accepting a job this summer with a civil firm. "I think this is going to be a dogfight."
Both Miles and Shellenberger started their legal careers as prosecutors -- Miles working for two years for the city state's attorney's office and Shellenberger rising through the ranks in Baltimore County over 11 years from law clerk to supervisor, prosecuting capital murder cases, career criminals and sex offenders.
Shellenberger, 47, who lives in Parkville with his wife of 22 years and their two daughters, has quietly built a reputation as an aggressive but fair litigator, first as a prosecutor and then, for the past 13 years, as an attorney in Angelos' firm.
There, he has represented the widows and families of people stricken with cancer and other diseases after their exposure to toxic chemicals. He is currently lead counsel in two lawsuits that accuse Exxon of tainting the wells of hundreds of residents in Jacksonville and Fallston.
"It's hard to communicate how good of an attorney Scott is," said Robin S. Coffin, a Harford County prosecutor who worked with Shellenberger during her 18 years as a prosecutor in Baltimore County. "It's really something tangible when you go down and see him in action. ... I think it would make such an improvement for the Baltimore County state's attorney's office to have a leader with those skills coming in."
Miles, 63, who lives in Lutherville with his wife and two girls they adopted from Vietnam, started out in the city state's attorney's office in 1969 before switching sides to do criminal defense work. He ran unsuccessfully for Baltimore Circuit Court judge in 1975. And in 1977, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down bans on lawyer advertising, Miles steered his practice toward large volume, personal injury work.
During the 1990s, he spent about $693,000 a year -- often 20 percent of his expenses -- on advertising, according to tax records made public during a 2001 lawsuit.
Miles' firm merged in 1999 with Saiontz & Kirk. Although the new practice bears his name and he appears in some of its TV ads, Miles is not a partner there and has handled few cases in the last nine years, he said.
With various gigs over the years as a talk-radio host and a stand-up comedian, Miles has, some say, made his mark more as a personality than as an attorney.
"A few years ago, you went into the courthouse and he was the most recognizable lawyer there," said Brian Murphy, a criminal defense attorney. "[U.S. Supreme Court Justice] Sandra Day O'Connor could walk down the hall and nobody would know who she was. But you'd hear all the time, `There goes Stephen L. Miles.' He was like a TV star."
A local law school, for instance, seemed to acknowledge his celebrity with test questions about an attorney named "Stephen L. Smiles," and Baltimore magazine, with Miles' consent, splashed his face across the cover of its March 1995 issue about the area's 115 top lawyers -- albeit with this parenthetical disclaimer: "Relax, he's not one of them."
But Mark A. Snyder, the managing partner of Cohen, Snyder, Eisenberg & Katzenberg, a firm specializing in personal injury and workers' compensation cases, said that people who dismiss Miles overlook his competence in the courtroom and skill in running a successful law firm.
"People want to tag him because he markets in a different way," said Snyder, whose firm has featured Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and former Baltimore Colt Bubba Smith in television ads. "They're probably just jealous because they're probably losing clients to firms that advertise."
The campaign has become hotly contested in recent weeks.