Court clerk is studying options for campaign


The job of managing the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court's record-processing and record-keeping is so low-profile politically that candidates for the position are usually left off the agenda when community groups hold forums around Election Day.

But the name of the clerk of the court, Robert P. Duckworth, is on more than 100,000 courthouse documents, from marriage and business licenses to subpoenas and real estate documents.

And his name is swirling about as a contender for any number of higher-profile positions in this election year.

Whether that's because some believe there aren't many other Republican candidates with proven records as vote-getters or because Duckworth would make a formidable candidate depends on where the observer's party loyalties lie.

Duckworth says he is "leaning" toward seeking a third term as clerk, in large part because he likes running his 110-employee office.

But while not encouraging people to mention his name for other races, he's not dissuading them either. So his name has come up in political circles for Congress, lieutenant governor and county executive.

"I think he is a very strong candidate. More important, I think he is a very strong elected official in whatever capacity he serves," said Republican Central Committee Chairman Terry Gilleland.

Gilleland said Duckworth, who lives in Crofton, has good name recognition with wins in 1994 and 1998.

Polite and soft-spoken, Duckworth, 61, is also a longtime Republican's Republican, a cautious politician with an office packed with pachyderms - mostly from a line of desktop sculptures in playful poses - and other GOP paraphernalia and photos.

A volunteer in GOP campaigns and hired in 1991 as chief deputy by a Republican clerk, he often is seen darting around the county circuit courthouse and Annapolis wearing a Republican-themed tie, offering a handshake and a smile.

"The guy's got zero people he makes mad," said Michael J. Wagner, former Democratic state senator from Ferndale who works behind the political scenes. "You want a license - $12 and you get one. You need to be sworn in - raise your right hand. Plus, he's got his name mailed out on everything."

Wagner said Duckworth probably can win a third term because, for openers, he doubts the Democrats will offer a tough opponent.

Dan Nataf, director of Anne Arundel Community College's Center for the Study of Local Issues, agrees that Duckworth could be tough to unseat.

In general, a little name recognition, no big scandal and weak opposition keeps the incumbent in office, Nataf said.

But lawyer Candace Beckett, chairman of the county Democratic Central Committee, said Duckworth can't expect her party to give him a free ride to a third term. She is confident, she said, Democrats will have meaty issues and a good candidate closer to the election.

Democrats disagree that Duckworth has much name recognition, given his relatively little-known office. Polling being conducted for Republicans will give a better indication of how he stacks up for various offices.

A former staffer for the Republican Research Committee on Capitol Hill, Duckworth retired early as a federal employee and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1990, taking 41 percent of the general election vote.

In 1992, after redistricting sent a chunk of the county into an Eastern Shore district, he lost in the primary to former Kent County teacher Wayne T. Gilchrest, who has held that congressional seat ever since.

Duckworth's Republican predecessor as clerk, Mary Rose, chose him to be her chief deputy in 1991. When she made an unsuccessful run for state Senate in 1994, he won the clerk's post and went on in 1998 to trounce his opponent by a margin of nearly 2 to 1.

Until recently, Duckworth was contemplating making a third run for Congress if enough of the county was united into a single district. But he is so incensed that his home county is likely to stay divided among four congressional districts that he is contemplating suing instead.

"The way Anne Arundel was divided in redistricting, no Republican and no Democrat from Anne Arundel can run successfully," he said, arguing that the proposed redistricting gives county residents no say in their districts.

As far as political options in the county, a poll last year found Duckworth a potential leading GOP contender against County Executive Janet S. Owens, a Democrat. He said this week, however, that he is unsure that's what he wants to do.

Any contest against Owens would be difficult, he said, though he bested her when she ran against him for clerk of the court in the GOP landslide year 1994. And if Duckworth wants the job, he might wait for four years, so that he wouldn't have to battle an incumbent, observers say. Term limits would prevent Owens from running again in 2006.

Outside Anne Arundel, Duckworth is described as a potential candidate for lieutenant governor by U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is considering a run for governor.

Duckworth's current job is more that of a manager of an office dealing with a limited segment of the public than that of a policy-maker helping constituents.

Earning $74,000 a year, Duckworth has presided over the computerization of the court's land records and other modernizations. He would like to see the courts catch up quickly with the electronic age, with electronic filing, kiosks with scanners for the public and computerized case files.

"I've been trying to tell people for eight years what we do here besides weddings," Duckworth said of an office whose task is to keep the court from suffocating in its paperwork.

But it was his officiating at the recent marriage of Gov. Parris N. Glendening that garnered him headlines. Weddings are also endearing him to the county's growing Hispanic community. During several years of federal Department of Housing and Urban Development economic development work with Mexico, he learned Spanish.

Families "absolutely" remember him for doing weddings in Spanish, said Rick Ferrell, president of the Organization of Hispanics and Latin Americans of Anne Arundel County.

"That is someone who made an effort," he said.

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