The Sun

Circuit Court candidates turn to cable commercials
Local ads emphasize experience, crime stance

by Shanon D. Murray SUN STAFF The Baltimore Sun

September 29, 1996 Page(s): 9B
Section: METRO
Length: 780 words
Record Number: BSUN475065


Candidates for the Howard County Circuit Court have begun vying for votes from local cable television viewers, but two different messages are being transmitted as the sitting judges pitch their experience and the challengers hawk their tough-on-crime stance.

Last week, the challengers, District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and attorney Jonathan Scott Smith, launched their first pair of commercials, which will stop running today.

Sitting Circuit Judges Donna Hill Staton and Diane O. Leasure ended their pair of ads a week ago after a two-week run.

The sitting judges spent $896 to have their commercials run 56 times a week on CNN, according to Comcast cable in Howard. The challengers spent $1,792 for their ads to run 56 times each on TNT, USA, CNN, and ESPN.

Cable television hasn't proved to be a battleground in the campaign. Unlike the ads that aired before the primary -- which featured vitriolic attacks and subtle mudslinging -- the ads this fall avoid references to opposing campaigns.

Another difference from the primary is that the challengers' ads feature only one candidate at a time.

Both of their 30-second ads -- which have a more professional look than those of the sitting judges -- have similar openings, showing newspaper clippings of articles about crime in the county. They both close with the same "Elect Gelfman Smith Judges" banner.

But Gelfman's ads dwells on her experience and Smith's on his get-tough views on crime.

"I think people have lost faith and confidence in the court system because they think there is too much protection given to criminals and not to the people who have been victimized by the criminal," Smith says to the viewer. He also outlines his support for mandatory, no-parole prison sentences for "repeat violent criminal offenders."

Gelfman's ad, while not as pointed on crime, also adopts a tough tone not evident in the sitting judges' ads.

In her ad, she describes herself as a mother, wife and "citizen of this community," but adds that she is a district judge and former prosecutor who believes "if a long, lengthy sentence is appropriate, that is what I do and that's what I will continue to do."

By contrast, the sitting judges' two 30-second spots feature both candidates together at the beginning and end of each ad, while highlighting them individually in the middle.

Using practically the same text in each, both ads say the judges are wives and mothers who have "presided over hundreds of criminal cases" and "have proven through action they have the right judicial temperment for Howard County."

In a marked difference from the challengers' unabashed efforts at appearing tough on crime, Hill Staton and Leasure opted for more vague language.

"I have the experience to resolve complex issues that affect all of us," Leasure says. "I'm not afraid to make tough decisions."

In Hill Staton's ad, she says, "We need judges who will act decisively to handle our toughest issues. I am such a judge."

State Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a supporter of the challengers, called the sitting judges commercials "feel-good pieces."

"The fact is, the Glendening judges are embarrassed that they don't have any experience prosecuting criminal cases," he said of Leasure and Hill Staton, who had mostly civil legal careers. "They don't have the experience to make decisions in criminal cases."

But the two sitting judges say the challengers' approach is off point. "Experience is the issue," Hill Staton said. "We have a different and better perspective on what the job requires."

Added Leasure: "Judges are ethically prohibited from pre-judging a case. A judge is not an advocate. A prosecutor presents the case and a judge makes sure there's a fair trial. If a situation warrants it, I have no problem in being tough."

Flanagan, speaking for the Gelfman-Smith campaign, says that Gelfman's tough talk in her ad about a "long, lengthy sentence" doesn't put her in that sort of ethical conflict because she also stresses that she favors such sentences when "appropriate."

But Smith, an attorney, agrees that he has more leeway than his running mate to declare his positions on crime because Gelfman is sitting on the District Court -- which is why the campaign decided that each of the two candidates' ads take different approaches.

Pub Date: 9/29/96

Copyright 1996 The Baltimore Sun Company