The two challengers in Howard County's Circuit Court judicial race, whose roadside sign-waving has set new standards of aggressiveness for such campaigns, may have caused a minor fender-bender just outside Columbia -- and then quickly left the scene.
The incident has touched off a new feud in the bitter county judges' race just as the four candidates are gearing up for a final face-off in the fall election.
The drivers of the cars involved in the Sept. 5 accident vary in the blame they assign to the two sign-waving candidates, District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and attorney Jonathan Scott Smith.
One -- a friend of one of the sitting judicial candidates -- says the sight of the two waving by the side of Route 108 distracted her, causing her to drive into the back of the other car. The driver of the car that was hit says the candidates were distracting to drivers, but did not directly blame the candidates for the accident.
Nevertheless, both drivers were shocked by Gelfman's and Smith's abrupt departures from the scene of the accident.
"They left immediately," said Ellicott City resident Joe Wisniewski, whose Nissan Altima was rear-ended. "I found that very ironic, especially with what they're running for.
"We're talking about justice," he said. "They did not want to be part of something that they may have helped initiate."
Howard County police say the candidates were not obligated to stay at the accident scene. There was very little apparent damage to the cars. No one required immediate medical attention. The accident did not even trigger a police report; a Howard County police officer who happened by the scene only aided in the exchange of insurance information.
And the challengers deny that their signs caused the 8 a.m. fender-bender near the intersection of Routes 108 and 175. But they acknowledge they left immediately afterward. The accident was very minor, they stress, and those involved did not appear to need help.
"Had I stayed where I was, the traffic would have run me over," said Smith, who, according to one of the drivers, was standing about 15 feet away from the accident. Cars began to pass the two vehicles on the right-hand shoulder where he and Gelfman were standing, he said.
Gelfman said she heard a "bump" but did not see the accident, because she was standing down the road from Smith. Traffic was backing up because of a red light, she said.
"I said to Jonathan, 'It's 8 o'clock. The traffic is stopping. It's time for me to go,' " Gelfman said. "At that point, I had an obligation to get to court to do court business."
"It just honest-to-goodness didn't strike me as any big whoop," she said. "If I saw an accident with people that appeared to need assistance, I would call 911. This wasn't that type of situation."
Smith noted that sign-waving by political candidates is a Howard County tradition. "Most people seem to enjoy it," he said. But the incident -- brought to the attention of The Sun by the rival campaign of appointed Circuit Judges Diane O. Leasure and Donna Hill Staton -- has sparked fire between the two campaigns, which vowed recently that the fall campaign would be much more low-key than the contentious battle before the March primary.
But Gelfman said that, as a judge, she should not have gotten involved in the dispute between the two motorists because it could end up in her court.
"I had nothing to do with it other than the fact that I, along with dozens of other people, were there," Gelfman said. "I didn't think it was appropriate for me to become involved at all."
Lowe, a friend of Leasure's, later told the Leasure-Hill Staton campaign about the incident, bringing it to light.
Pub Date: 9/12/96