The Sun

Judges' ads question foes' experience
Gelfman, who led in primary, is main target
`That's a personal attack'
Move signals shift to the offensive by Leasure, Hill Staton

by Craig Timberg SUN STAFF The Baltimore Sun

October 1, 1996 Page(s): 1B
Section: METRO
Length: 937 words
Index Terms:
Howard County

Record Number: BSUN473770


The race for Howard County Circuit Court heated up yesterday when the sitting judges began running a television ad questioning the experience of the challengers -- particularly District Judge Lenore Gelfman, the top vote-getter in the March primary.

The advertisement, the most pointed one since the contentious primary, highlights an important strategic element in the race: To win 15-year terms in November, Judges Diane O. Leasure and Donna Hill Staton must cut into the popularity of Gelfman, a well-known local figure.

"That's a highly negative ad," said Herbert C. Smith, a professor at Western Maryland College who was a paid consultant for Gelfman and Smith during the primary and remains a volunteer adviser. "That's a personal attack on Judge Gelfman, and it sarcastically belittles her record in Howard County."

Leasure and Hill Staton disagreed, saying their intention was not to belittle anyone, but to explain the difference between Circuit Court and District

Court, a lower court involving less-serious issues and no jury trials.

Either way, the ad signals a major shift. Gelfman and Smith made experience the centerpiece of their primary campaign, with Smith dubbing Leasure and Hill Staton "judges with training wheels" because of their inexperience with criminal law.

Now the sitting judges have nearly a year on the bench and are taking the offensive on the experience issue while Gelfman and Smith focus on the rise of violent crime -- an issue that the sitting judges treat gingerly for fear of violating judicial decorum.

They have said that taking stands on judicial issues -- including how they would sentence offenders -- could give the appearance that they prejudge cases.

New ad started yesterday

The new ad, which began appearing on ESPN on the county cable system yesterday morning, opens with pictures of Gelfman and Smith, a Columbia attorney.

An off-screen voice says, "You've heard a lot of rhetoric from candidates for judge about being tough on crime, but the record shows that only two have ever presided over a criminal jury trial." Then, shots of Leasure and Hill Staton are shown, with the voice saying they have helped clear the backlog of Circuit Court cases, have worked with complex business law and have the temperament to handle sensitive child-custody cases.

"Serious matters," the voice continues, "not traffic court."

The main theme is that Leasure and Hill Staton, who have been circuit judges since Gov. Parris N. Glendening appointed them nearly a year ago, have experience that Smith and Gelfman don't have.

But the subtext is a response to Gelfman's ad, which started airing last week, in which she talks about giving a "long, lengthy sentence" as a District Court judge -- even though District Court has no jury trials and handles a large volume of traffic violations.

"In Judge Gelfman's case, she doesn't have a whole lot of opportunity to practice what she preaches," said Carol Arscott, consultant to the sitting judges' campaign. "There aren't too many people coming through District Court who are receiving long, lengthy sentences."

The targeting of Gelfman should be no surprise, since she was the top vote-getter in the March primary, leading Leasure and Hill Staton by several hundred votes and Smith by several thousand.

Gelfman also enjoys wide name recognition, thanks in part to the visibility of her husband, WJZ-TV consumer affairs reporter Dick Gelfman, who appears at political events with his wife and is featured in her television ads.

Lenore Gelfman did not return a telephone message yesterday.

Smith, Gelfman's running mate, said she has faced serious issues as a judge, handling cases involving battered women and automobile homicides.

In addition, Smith said, he and Gelfman have been prosecutors, giving them experience that Leasure and Hill Staton lack.

"There are only two candidates who are former prosecutors, and there are only two candidates who are experienced in criminal law," Smith said. "And they certainly aren't the Glendening judges."

Opponent has crime theme

Smith also tried to turn the focus to his preferred campaign theme -- the rise of violent crime in Howard County. His call for the death penalty and no-parole life imprisonment in certain situations has become a staple of his campaigning.

"The defining issue of the campaign is crime, and they've chosen to run away from it," Smith said.

Leasure, whose campaign advertisements focus on the experience, judicial temperament and integrity of the sitting judges, noted that Smith is now a criminal defense attorney, not a prosecutor. She said the campaign is about more than violent crime.

"I think that's a convenient issue because it's something that's viewed as something people want to hear."

The ad on ESPN will run for at least a week.

The campaign also started a second ad, in which Leasure and Hill Staton, dressed in robes and surrounded by law books, pledge to be fair and honorable judges. That will run on the CNN and A&E cable channels for at least a week.

The campaign spent $1,350 for the air time for the two ads.

Pub Date: 10/01/96

Copyright 1996 The Baltimore Sun Company