The Sun

Attorney talks tough in race for Circuit judge
Smith freer to talk than sitting judges during campaign

by Craig Timberg SUN STAFF The Baltimore Sun

October 16, 1996 Page(s): 1B
Section: METRO
Length: 1016 words
Index Terms:
Howard County

Record Number: BSUN476601


Crime is hardly a menace in Ellicott City's Bethgate neighborhood, with its well-groomed lawns and sturdy brick homes miles from inner-city violence.

But Jonathan Scott Smith -- who alone among the candidates for Howard County Circuit judge has shown the kind of political instincts handlers can't teach -- simply counted the burglar alarms as he canvassed the neighborhood last Sunday afternoon.

He knew these were his people, or potentially so.

"You know what I like about what you said on TV?" said Harold Kirkwood, a retired highway engineer whose Postwick Road home hasn't been robbed in 25 years but who tracks crime by listening to his police scanner. "You said you're going to be strict. And I liked that."

Smith took the cue: "We can have police that do their job and prosecutors that do their job, but if the judges let them down, it doesn't matter."

It is with such statements that Smith -- a gifted orator who strikes some as arrogant -- has turned the deep suburban fear of crime into a central issue of the judicial race.

By conventional standards, his approach more resembles a campaign for Congress or state's attorney than judge. But win or lose, Smith has indelibly shaped this race, and perhaps launched a political career that may continue beyond the election on Nov. 5.

His rivals, sitting judges Diane O. Leasure and Donna Hill Staton, protest Smith's tactics as inappropriate for a judicial candidate. They also criticize his running mate, District Court Judge Lenore Gelfman, who has said far less but has not disavowed Smith's many pointed statements.

"They're real button pushers, those two," said Carol Arscott, campaign consultant to the sitting judges. "It's completely inappropriate, and they know it. But they keep pushing those buttons."

Arscott's campaign has had to respond to Smith's
get-tough-on-crime rhetoric. First, the sitting judges called a news conference to explain that they are restricted by judicial ethics from discussing the crime issue in detail. Then they began running TV ads this week that attack Gelfman and Smith as hypocrites on crime.

"I'm sure Carol Arscott would love to trade places," Smith said. "She's trying to dampen me. I'm the only one who can speak freely."

Smith is freer to talk because Gelfman, Leasure and Hill Staton are judges bound by the state's Judicial Canons of Ethics. Smith, as an attorney, is not.

The canons state that judges "should not make pledges or promises of conduct in office other than the faithful and impartial performance of the duties of the office {or} announce the judge's views on disputed legal or political issues."

That rule, Smith acknowledged, prohibits the three judges in the race from commenting on his emphasis on using the death penalty, life imprisonment without parole, and mandatory, no-parole prison sentences for repeat offenders.

All are staples of the campaign literature he said he has personally distributed to more than 4,000 homes in Howard County.

Aside from Smith's relative freedom to address issues, he also has a natural-born knack for the kind of verbal combat that is the trade of litigators and politicians.

In a recent interview, Smith recalled that parents of his childhood friends, noting his early verbosity, predicted he would run for office someday.

When he was a prosecutor, Smith's reputation for passionate pleas to juries prompted one rival lawyer to seek a judicial order prohibiting Smith from crying during his arguments, he said.

"All I have to do is speak the truth, and people hear it," said Smith, in private practice for the last 13 years.

Though articulate, intense and quick on his feet, Smith has not mastered the restraint and self-deprecating charm that are part of the arsenal of many successful politicians.

County Councilman Darrel E. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican and supporter of Smith, told him of his reputation when Smith paid a courtesy call before announcing his candidacy last fall.

"You're on top of things, but you have a hard edge and sometimes you can be conceited. I don't know you, but that's your reputation," Drown said, recalling that conversation. He said Smith's reputation has proven largely wrong -- that he is sensitive and likable. But Drown added, "Perception is reality in politics."

This perception of Smith was reinforced at a forum before the March primary, when Smith called Leasure and Hill Staton, newly appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, "judges on training wheels" because of their relative inexperience in criminal law.

In the interview, Smith partially disavowed the line, saying he said it on the suggestion of a paid consultant who is no longer with the campaign: "It was a product of my mouth, but not a product of my head or my heart."

Citing such harsh comments, Arscott said Smith's mouth is more of a liability than an asset to his campaign: "To be perfectly frank, keep talking, Jonathan. I don't mind it when Jonathan Scott Smith talks."

But then there are those like David Winks, who lives across the street from Harold Kirkwood on Postwick Road in Bethgate. Before Smith knocked on his door last weekend, Winks had seen him speak at a forum with all four judicial candidates at Harvester Baptist Church in Columbia.

Winks needed to hear no more. From that brief encounter, he was sold on Smith's vision of tougher justice: "To see somebody who believes that a person should indeed be responsible for his actions, that it's not just society's fault but a choice, I think that's refreshing."

Pub Date: 10/16/96


Caption: Outspoken: "All I have to do is speak the truth, and people hear it," says judicial candidate Jonathan Scott Smith.

Copyright 1996 The Baltimore Sun Company