The Sun

Voters chose judges along party lines
Primary results suggest partisan loyalty was at work
November may be different
Name recognition cited for putting Gelfman in lead

by James M. Coram SUN STAFF The Baltimore Sun

March 13, 1996 Page(s): 1B
Section: METRO
Length: 917 words
Index Terms:
Howard County

Record Number: BSUN440517


Voters in the Howard County Circuit Court primary last week may have been few in number, but they came to the polls in a fiercely partisan mood, knowing whom they wanted to vote for.

An analysis of the voting patterns by precinct shows:

Candidates Lenore R. Gelfman and Jonathan Scott Smith won handily among Republicans, campaign insiders say, and did so by slamming Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening for appointing their two opponents to the bench and Democratic Councilman C. Vernon Gray for urging him to do so.

Democrats followed the endorsement of their local Central Committee and voted overwhelmingly for incumbents Diane O. Leasure, the county's first female circuit judge, and Donna Hill Staton, the county's first African-American judge.

District Judge Gelfman appeared to take full advantage of her record and the name recognition of her husband, local TV news personality Dick Gelfman. When Republican and Democratic votes were added together as they will be in the November election Judge Gelfman finished first among all candidates in the race.

The "single shooting" scenario voters casting ballots for only one candidate on a slate never materialized as the challengers had hoped it would. Instead, on election night, Judges Leasure and Hill Staton were separated by only 149 votes in the Democratic primary.

A week after the primary in which only 31 percent of the voters came to the polls, the campaigns are dormant and likely to remain so until September. In the meantime, the candidates' advisers will study the primary results for clues to victory in November.

The candidates are not likely to benefit as much in November from the party loyalties that swept them to victory in last week's primaries. On the November ballot, they will be listed merely as candidates, without party affiliation. Voters will be told to vote for two of the four.

In their primary campaigns, the challengers took a partisan tack from the start by suggesting that the governor's appointments resulted from back room politics involving Mr. Gray, his flamboyant Howard County ally.

The challengers' campaign had "a decidedly anti-Glendening, anti-Gray" tone, said Gelfman-Smith campaign adviser Herbert C. Smith, who is not related to the candidate. "It was an appealing message to Howard County Republicans and not a few Democrats."

But even party affiliations had their limits. Candidate Smith was the only Republican in the race, yet finished second in the GOP primary. His running mate a Democrat bested him in all but a handful of Republican precincts.

"It was name recognition" because of Judge Gelfman's consumer-reporter husband, said Republican County Councilman Charles C. Feaga, who represents the western part of the county. "Most people like Dick on TV because he is always fighting for the underdog."

The fact that Mr. Smith finished 1,175 votes behind his running mate in Republican primaries worries Republican Councilman Darrel Drown of Ellicott City. Mr. Drown said his party should rethink its position of not endorsing candidates in the primary.

Some observers say that because Mr. Smith finished so far behind the others in the field, he is effectively out of the race. Even his supporters say he has a lot of ground to make up. And if November voting patterns follow the primary, being the only male in the race could be a handicap.

In the primary, Mr. Smith was ambushed by "gender gap," said Carol Arscott, campaign adviser to the sitting judges. "The women didn't vote for Jonathan," she said.

Betty Smith Adams, campaign manager for the challengers, said her observations as a poll watcher on election day confirmed that phenomenon. "My best guess is that it was a strong women's vote" for women candidates, she said.

But Herb Smith the challengers' campaign strategist said that as the only male left in the race, Candidate Smith will pick up votes from the one candidate who did not make the cut in last week's primary: Columbia resident Jay Fred Cohen.

There is a limit to how much can be predicted from last week's results, say officials in both parties. They warn that the November general election will take place in an entirely different atmosphere.

In the primary, they note, the judge's race was the main attraction. In November, it will be a side-show: Though nearly twice as many voters are expected to turn out, they will be looking to elect a president, not judges.

Ms. Arscott said she welcomes getting the Circuit Court campaign out of the limelight. The incumbents "didn't choose to become political candidates," she said. "It was forced upon them. They are getting stronger every day {they sit as judges} and the arguments against them are getting weaker and weaker."

Mr. Feaga doubts the local GOP will have much energy to spare for the judicial race come November. "I've been working from day one to elect {presidential hopeful} Bob Dole" something that is now the GOP's first priority, he said. As for the judges, "all four candidates are very capable, very good people," he said.

Pub Date: 3/13/96

Copyright 1996 The Baltimore Sun Company