Marilyn Bentley, who ascended to the position of Clerk of the Baltimore Circuit Court after her two previous bosses died in office, led a crowded field Tuesday in the race to secure the job at the polls.
But two challengers, activist Valerie Cunningham and Sheriff’s Office aide Lenora Dawson, made strong showings in early returns.
The first election since the 2015 death of longtime Clerk Frank M. Conaway attracted 11 Democrats, some with criminal records. With such a large field, it was possible for someone to win the $114,000-a-year job with just a few thousand votes.
No Republican ran for the position. The eventual winner will be the only candidate on the ballot in November.
The clerk, who oversees a budget of $22 million and a staff of 280, is responsible for managing the flow of more than a million court records each year. The job is essentially administrative and the office has to run well for the court to effectively handle criminal prosecutions and civil disputes. But some of the candidates argued it could do more to engage the community.
Conaway, who served as clerk from 1998 until his death, had a knack for propelling the office into the headlines — such as when he switched his party affiliation in staunchly Democratic Baltimore to Republican shortly after the 2014 election.
This election continued the office’s reputation for quirkiness.
Many of the candidates claimed deep familiarity with the court system, either through current jobs in the clerk’s office or in other city agencies — or, in the cases of two of them, having been criminally prosecuted there.
The clerk’s office faces challenging years ahead as the courts move to an electronic filing system. Managing that project, which has been gradually rolled out across the state, will now be one of the winner’s most important jobs.
The court buildings are showing their age and workers are desperate for renovations or new facilities altogether.
Candidate Hassan Giordano, a political operative who was tied to Conaway, had made that a high priority in his campaign. He secured the backing of the court employees’ union but fell far behind in the voting.
After Conaway’s death, one of his deputies was appointed to take over, but she also died. Bentley, who was then a senior deputy, was elevated to the job.
Bentley has worked in the clerk’s office since 1997 and has said she knew almost every employee there by name. Bentley said she had worked to ensure the smooth operation of the office amid the leadership upheavals.
The Conaway family has been a fixture at the courthouse for decades. Conaway’s wife, Mary, served as register of wills, overseeing the administration of estates. After she retired, his daughter, Belinda, took over the position. Belinda Conaway was on course to easily win reelection on Tuesday.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the succession of the register of wills from Frank Conaway’s wife to his daughter. His daughter Belinda took over after the retirement of his wife, Mary, who is still alive.