The Sun

A final controversy winds up judges race
Calls by `Democrats for Gelfman-Smith' are criticized

by Norris P. West Sun staff writers James M. Coram, Howard Libit and Shanon D. Murray contributed to this article. SUN STAFF The Baltimore Sun

March 5, 1996 Page(s): 1B
Section: METRO
Length: 1604 words
Index Terms:
Howard County

Record Number: BSUN439172


Howard County voters pass judgment on the governor's Circuit Court appointments today as the county's most hotly contested judges race concluded with one last controversy.

The primary vote will place at least two judicial candidates, and as many as four, on the November general election ballot. Voters may decide the fate of the two sitting judges appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening -- or keep them in suspense for another eight months.

Also at stake in today's primaries are a county school board seat, two congressional seats and slots for delegates at the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

As the primary campaign came to an end yesterday, the campaign organization for incumbent judges Diane O. Leasure and Donna Hill Staton denounced as misleading last-minute telephone calls by workers for its two leading opponents. The two judges are being challenged by District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and attorneys Jonathan Scott Smith and Jay Fred Cohen.

Lin Eagan, campaign manager for judges Hill Staton and Leasure, complained that recent telephone callers to county Democrats -- callers asking residents to vote for Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith -- misrepresented themselves as speaking for the county's Democratic Party.

The callers identified themselves as "Democrats for Gelfman-Smith," some residents who received weekend calls told The Sun. One caller Saturday morning -- to the home of Judge Leasure -- stated that she was representing "Howard County Democrats," the judge said.

"She said she was calling to encourage me to vote for Lenore Gelfman and Jonathan Smith," Judge Leasure recounted yesterday. "I told her I would not be voting for them because she was speaking to Judge Leasure."

Ms. Eagan said the calls were misleading because the Howard County Democratic Central Committee endorsed the sitting judges last month.

"This is a judge and a lawyer who both want to be Circuit Court judges who have another gross misrepresentation being forced on the public," Ms. Eagan said. "It's another half-truth. It's another attempt to ignore the facts. I think it's absolutely appalling."

Carole Fisher, chairwoman of the county's Democratic Central Committee, added: "I've never seen such garbage in Howard County in all my life. We didn't do it, we didn't know about it. I've never seen this kind of low in Howard County. Never!"

Herb Smith, a consultant to the Gelfman-Smith campaign, defended the calls.

"Howard County Democrats are supporting Gelfman and Smith," said Mr. Smith, who is not related to the candidate. "I do believe we will be getting Democrats voting for our candidates."

He said half of the telephone calls made over the weekend were placed by volunteers and half were made by an out-of-town firm. He would not identify the firm or its location.

Commercials criticized

The Gelfman-Smith campaign also has been criticized in recent days over television commercials the sitting judges have called misleading.

Those commercials say the county's bar association overwhelmingly recommended Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith. However, the information came from polls of county lawyers taken last year. In its most recent poll, the Howard County Bar Association failed to endorse any candidate.

Mr. Smith, the Gelfman-Smith consultant, said his opponents "offend awful easily" and called their complaints unwarranted.

"They have been more negative. They have been more vicious," Mr. Smith said. "They have called us names to a far greater extent. Yet every time we do something like run a TV ad or wave signs at intersections, it seems to be a capital offense to them."

In last-minute campaigning, the challengers were more visible than the sitting judges.

Mr. Cohen and his family wore "Jay Fred Cohen for Judge" T-shirts and caps and hit the parking lots of Weis Market in Laurel and Columbia's Kings Contrivance Village Center Sunday afternoon.

His wife, mother, a sister, a great-niece and a great-nephew passed out literature and pressed flesh. "This is the wrong day to be out here doing what I'm doing," Mr. Cohen said, as he traversed the parking lots in the cold, blustery weather talking to a few dozen customers.

Also over the weekend, volunteers at the Gelfman-Smith headquarters worked feverishly on last minute-details. They folded election-day literature, made calls and stuck multicolored pins in maps adorning the walls.

The candidates -- wearing sweat-shirts bearing their names and campaign logo -- began the day with breakfast in a crowded West Columbia restaurant and then headed out to a busy intersection for some sign waving.

As a rule, drivers appeared enthusiastic as they passed the candidates at the intersection of Cedar Lane and Little Patuxent Parkway in West Columbia. Most flashed thumbs up, honked or raised a clinched fist in a gesture of triumph.

"It's a great favorable response in enemy territory," Mr. Smith said of Columbians' reaction. "Two thumbs up more than compensates for a middle finger or one thumb down."

Judges Leasure and Hill Staton kept their last-minute campaigning low key, appearing Saturday night at an American Heart Association dinner at the Spear Center and a benefit for the Howard County Sexual Assault Center at Turf Valley Country Club.

Sunday, the two -- the first female Circuit judge in the county's history and its first black judge -- greeted a sparse gathering in the Great Room at Historic Savage Mill for a fashion show and art exhibit with the theme "Women Supporting Women."

The two circuit judges yesterday checked polling places with volunteers.

In this primary, Howard voters have seen the most acrimonious judicial race in the county's history, one in which the five contenders have combined to have raised a record total of more than $158,000.

About 38 percent of the county's voters are expected to turn out, said Barbara Feaga, the county's director of elections. The county has a record 116,331 registered voters.

In the bipartisan judicial contest, all candidates are running on both the Democratic and Republican ballots. The top two finishers on each ballot will advance to the general election.

Unlike the school board race, independent voters not affiliated with one of the two major parties cannot vote for judicial candidates. A state law essentially gives school board members a primary unto themselves, says Jack Schwartz, an assistant Maryland attorney general.

In the end, it's possible for the same two candidates to win both the Democratic and Republican judicial primaries -- thereby making the November general election only a formality. But as many as four candidates also could remain in the running for the two 15-year terms on the bench, jobs that pay $93,500 a year.

The race got nasty before it began.

The aggressive Gelfman-Smith campaign referred to the sitting judges, appointed by Gov. Mr. Glendening in October, as having "training wheels." Name-calling, anonymous leaks, charges and counter-charges became staples of the race.

The campaign hostility has sharply divided the county's normally close-knit legal community, opening wounds some say will take years to heal.

Fred Howard Silverstein, president of the 420-member county bar, said this is the first time judicial campaigning has become personal.

"Instead of merely leaving matters merely to who has the most experience or who has the most credentials, it got into many areas that, in hindsight, are better left unsaid," Mr. Silverstein said.

Meanwhile, voters also will choose today among five candidates for Howard County school board.

The five candidates -- Virginia Charles, Vincent Pugliese, Jane Schuchardt, Arthur Neal Willoughby and Francine Wishnick -- are seeking to replace board chairwoman Susan Cook, who chose not to run for re-election. The top two vote-getters in today's primary will face-off in next November's general election.

Low-budget campaign

The campaign generally has been low-budget and fairly low-key. Members of the county's education establishment -- including current and past board members, school officials and parent leaders -- privately have described the candidates as uninspiring, uninformed and at frightening.

Campaign forums have been peppered with misinformation, primarily from Mr. Pugliese and Mr. Willoughby. Both men -- as well as Dr. Schuchardt and Ms. Wishnick -- also at times have relied on generalities over specifics. Ms. Charles has gotten off relatively scot-free, but that's only because she spent nearly all of the campaign overseas on a trip with her husband.

Ms. Wishnick is considered the odds-on favorite to make it through today's primarily, mostly because of the name recognition from being the only board candidate to have been elected to previous offices -- on the board of Columbia's Oakland Mills village and on the Columbia Council.

Voters also choose candidates from the third and sixth congressional districts, where incumbent U.S. Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democrat, and Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican are favorites.

Pub Date: 3/05/96

Copyright 1996 The Baltimore Sun Company