The Baltimore County Circuit Court judges trying to keep their jobs this coming election are all too aware that many people don't know the judicial candidates. They realize that when voters get to the low-placed ballot item March 2, many may pick the first four names they see.
But in what appears to be an unprecedented step in the county, the sitting judges are fighting back, hoping to emblazon the names Ballou-Watts, Levitz, Souder and Turnbull into the minds of the electorate.
Their method: a good, old-fashioned jingle.
"I said, 'Well, nowhere to go but up,'" Judge Dana M. Levitz said recently, after being asked about his ticket's new radio ad.
The radio spot, which has many in the courthouse buzzing, if not humming, reflects how much Baltimore County judicial elections have changed in recent years. Not so long ago, Circuit Court judges from the county would hardly have had to shake hands with potential voters, let alone compose a jingle.
But in the past two judicial elections, competitors have knocked an incumbent judge off the Baltimore County bench. And in this election, two attorneys -- Brenda A. Clark and David L. Saltzman -- are challenging the four incumbents.
The alphabetical listing of the candidates' names on the ballot makes the judges even more worried. In the last two elections, the judge who lost was listed last on the ballot.
Although sitting judge Vicki Ballou-Watts is at the top of the list this year, two other incumbent judges -- Susan M. Souder and John G. Turnbull II -- are listed last.
"If I'm a sitting judge in Baltimore County, given what has happened in 2000 and 2002, I'd be taking this election very seriously," said Byron L. Warnken, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
Hence the jingle.
"How else do you brand four names?" asked Carl Bauer of the advertising agency Strakes Roberts & Bauer, who created the spot.
In the ad, a man sings -- in a country-rock ballad sort of way -- the words "integrity, experience, fairness and justice," then "Ballou-Watts, Levitz, Souder and Turnbull." It is running on WBAL, WQSR, WWIN and other stations, and cost about $5,000 to produce, Bauer said.
'Reinforce the name'
"It's like any political advertisement," said attorney Jim Temple, who is working on the sitting judges' campaign. "It's like the billboards. It's to reinforce the name."
He was quick to add that the campaign, which according to the state Board of Elections has more than $110,000 on hand, has also mailed residents in-depth biographical information about the judges.
Still, some say the radio ad is unfitting for a judicial election.
"It seems kind of jumbled and silly," said Bob Gates, the husband of and campaign manager for Brenda Clark. "It was kind of unexpected that they would go to that level. But they have lots of money to spend."
Campaign songs have had a place in American politics since the mid-1800s, when candidates' supporters would march through the streets singing, said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University. But he said he had never heard a jingle in a judges' race.
But Jesse Rutledge, a spokesman for Justice at Stake, a Washington-based group that monitors judicial elections, said traditional campaign techniques are becoming increasingly common in judicial races as they become more competitive.
"Generally speaking, voters do not know who the candidates are," he said. "And as a result, more and more candidates for these judgeships are finding that in order to break through the clutter and noise generated by other elections, they need to find a way to get their names out there."
Some districts, such as those in Michigan and Alabama, have had full-fledged television ad battles between judges, he said.
In Maryland, judicial campaigns have not become so nasty. The candidates are nonpartisan, and run in the Republican and Democratic primary. The top vote-getters in each primary -- in Baltimore County this year, the top four -- go on to the general election.
The sitting judges hope that they will win the top four slots in both primaries, which would make for an unopposed election in November.
And that's where the jingle comes in.
"We were talking and realized there are ads that we can repeat that we heard as kids," Levitz said.
To prove his point, the 55-year-old judge sang a jingle for Baltimore's Cloverland Dairy -- "If you don't own a cow, call Cloverland now."
Then he sighed.
"The majority of people just have no idea who the judges are," he said. "And yet you stand for election with the public. You have to do something to get to them."