Two leading challengers in the primary race for the Howard County Circuit Court bench are defying the president of the county's bar association by continuing to air cable TV commercials that may wrongly imply they have the bar's official support.
About 30 supporters of the two challengers, District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and attorney Jonathan Scott Smith, called a news conference yesterday to denounce the bar president's move against the TV ads as inappropriate.
Illustrating how divisive the judges race has been for the local legal community, those who showed up at the news conference to oppose the bar association president, Fred Howard Silverstein, included six former bar presidents and two current executive board members.
"We will continue running the commercials," said Betty Smith Adams, the Gelfman-Smith campaign chairwoman.
The ads in question -- based on two polls of Howard bar members taken last year -- proclaim Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith were "overwhelmingly recommended" for the judgeships by the group.
Last week, however, the bar released the results of a third, more recent poll -- one that was so inconclusive that for the first time it is not endorsing a candidate in a Howard judges race.
After that decision, the campaign of the two sitting judges in the race, Circuit Court Judges Donna Hill Staton and Diane O. Leasure, has called the commercials "a lie" and asked the bar association to demand they be pulled from the air.
Mr. Silverstein did so Friday in a telephone conversation with Ms. Adams of the Gelfman-Smith campaign, Mr. Silverstein and Ms. Adams said yesterday.
Mr. Silverstein has not followed up that phone call with a formal demand of the Gelfman-Smith campaign because, he said, other bar leaders and members have questioned his authority to take such action on his own.
Mr. Silverstein said yesterday that he won't take further action until he consults today with the bar association's president-elect, David C. Hjortsberg, for guidance.
"Ultimately, I have to make a decision, but I also to behave responsibly," he said. He expressed disbelief at the mounting dispute over his threat to demand the ads be pulled, a dispute he characterized as "amazing."
Dispute strikes deep
Mr. Silverstein stressed that the bar association does not favor any of the five candidates in the race.
But the dispute over the ads -- and the judges race itself -- strikes deep within the bar association, as evidenced by the Gelfman-Smith news conference.
There, a member of the bar association's executive board, David S. Harvis, attacked the idea of pulling their ads.
Mr. Harvis said the ads are based on two surveys conducted last year by the bar and that "any attempts to disparage them is an attempt to rewrite history."
The controversy over the campaign advertising in the judges' race comes as Howard voters are being inundated by last-minute appeals from the five candidates on local cable television.
The candidates plan to air hundreds of 30-second cable TV ads between now and the March 5 primary -- 354 ads from Judges Leasure and Hill Staton, 342 from Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith, and 112 from Columbia resident Jay Fred Cohen.
The three ads in question all say that Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith were deemed to be the best candidates by the local bar.
Two ads say the two were "overwhelmingly recommended" by the local bar. A third ad says, "Their colleagues said they were the best to serve on the Circuit Court."
Ads written weeks ago
The different wording of the third ad, which began running this week, is not in response to the bar president's criticisms of the previous ads, said Chevy Fleischman, a spokeswoman for the Gelfman-Smith campaign. All of the ads were written weeks ago, she said.
"We decided at the beginning of the campaign to not develop ads that specifically respond to any charges that develop during the race," Ms. Fleischman said.
All three ads will run until the primary, she said.
Two of the ads also say that the governor ordered the results of the poll the ads cite -- one of two earlier bar association polls -- be kept confidential. The ads do not mention that governor's order came a month before he appointed Judges Leasure and Hill Staton last fall.
From the beginning, the challengers, Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith, have sought to portray themselves as having the kind of legal experience -- especially criminal -- that circuit judges should have. They say their opponents lack it.
"Our compare-the-candidates spot was hard-hitting, but not negative," said Herbert C. Smith, campaign strategist for the challengers. "We said this is what we have, this what they don't have. It was not a Bob Dole-type attack."
And it isn't inaccurate, he said: "We did not say we were endorsed by the bar association; we said we were recommended. They're comparing apples and oranges." He said the bar association could not keep them from airing the "recommendations."
By contrast, the sitting judges' cable TV campaign began by accentuating that they are already on the bench. Each of the judges' commercials showed them in robes, in their offices and with their families. The commercials concluded that the two were "on the job and working for you."
But after the first Gelfman-Smith spot aired, the tone of the sitting judges' ads changed dramatically.
The sitting judges retaliated with a hard-hitting spot of their own that showed faded black-and-white photos of Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith while an announcer called them "guilty of name calling, negative campaigning, and mud-slinging."
Each time the announcer says, "Guilty!" a gavel sounds, and the word "guilty" appears in red across the screen beneath the candidate's name."
'Say no,' voters urged
The ad ends with the announcer urging voters to "say no, to negative campaigning and vote to retain the sitting judges."
Campaign strategist Smith -- no relation to the candidate -- said it was the sitting judges' response that was negative, not the ads he was running. "To call our pointing out their deficiencies [as] 'mud-slinging' is a stretch," he said.
Meanwhile, the third challenger, Mr. Cohen, also entered the TV fray with what appears to be low-budget productions. His ad takes the viewer through 13 scenes of him in his office, at home, with friends, petting his dog, and walking through the snow. His theme is that he is not a politician, but an experienced lawyer.
Although not the top spenders, Judges Leasure and Hill Staton have been on the air longer and more often than any other candidate. They have paid Comcast cable $10,407 to air 1,300 commercials -- a cost of $8 per commercial -- since Jan. 29.
By law, cable companies must give political candidates their lowest rate -- in this instance, $7.75 a clip if commercials run randomly. Spots targeted for specific times and channels cost more. Some of the sitting judges' commercials were placed by specific time and channel, which costs more.
Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith chose more specific time and channel placements than the other candidates. They paid the cable company $12,130 to air 888 ads at an average cost of $13.66 each.
Mr. Cohen, who began airing his commercials Feb. 20, went for the bargain rate, spending $1,302 for 168 randomly placed commercials. "It was so cheap I couldn't pass it up," he said.