Marilyn Bentley is the accidental Clerk of the Baltimore Circuit Court. After working in the office for nearly two decades, Bentley landed the top job two years ago after her two previous bosses died in office.
Now the former deputy clerk is the incumbent looking to hold onto the office against an unusually crowded and bizarre field of 11 Democrats seeking the job in the June 26 primary election.
Some candidates have experience in the courthouse — as criminal defendants.
The position ranks among the lowest-profile elected offices in the city, but the stakes of the election are more significant than most voters might realize. The winner will control a $22 million budget and lead a staff of 280 courthouse employees responsible for managing the flow of more than a million records annually. The job pays a salary of $114,000.
And the wide field means victory could be secured with as few as 5,500 votes.
The hopefuls include a political operative with a lengthy criminal record; a man who celebrated his 80th birthday in November; a man whose most recent experience in the court was being prosecuted there for assault; and a woman whose address directly across the street from the courthouse would give her an enviable commute.
The scramble to seize the clerk’s job is a departure from past elections. Frank M. Conaway Sr. held a lock on the post from 1998 until his death at age 81 in 2015.
Conaway added a dash of flash to a job that mostly requires overseeing ranks of rule-following record keepers. He ran for mayor and knew how to snag a headline — as when he became a Republican in the Democrat-dominated city in 2014. That made him the first Republican to hold elected office in the city since Mayor Theodore McKeldin in the 1960s.
Several of the current candidates have significant management experience and a familiarity with the office. They say professionalizing its work and getting ready for the launch of an electronic court records system will be priorities in coming years.
Bentley, 69, said she has been working since she took over two years ago to fully train her employees and sweep away the reputation for nepotism and patronage the post acquired under Conaway.
“I like doing what I do,” Bentley said. “I do a very good job of it. I feel there are many more things I would like to do with the office.”
Hassan Giordano, the political operative, was close to Conaway. He said Bentley would do a competent job if she was elected, but said he was encouraged to run by the office employees’ union, which has complained for years of dirty, unsafe working conditions in the building. The union, AFSCME Local 3674, has endorsed his candidacy.
Giordano, 42, said he doesn’t think he’ll be hurt by his criminal record, which includes drug and theft convictions mostly from a decade or more ago under his previous name, Hassan Allen. He said that his familiarity with the sharp end of the courts might even be an asset.
“I’ve never tried to hide from my past,” Giordano said. “I made mistakes, surely. That’s probably 90 percent of black men in this city.”
Several of the challengers already work in the city’s century-old Circuit Court buildings.
Danny Smith, 62, is a veteran employee of the clerk’s office. He says he has a reputation internally as a troubleshooter. Smith said he’d not thought of running for the top job before but fretted about its future.
“This does not belong in the hands of a politician,” Smith said. “We need someone in that office who knows what they’re doing.”
Lenora Dawson, 52, an aide to the city sheriff, said she was motivated to run after hearing stories of mismanagement in the clerk’s office.
“Just watching how people's clear pathway to justice was being inhibited just encouraged me to run,” Dawson said.
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Anika Middleton, 43, a senior manager at the city housing department, said she has the necessary experience to help the office engage with the community.
“Baltimore needs all hands on deck,” said Middleton, stepdaughter of Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton. “All elected officials need to have all hands on deck to assist with the things that are going on the city.”
Several of the candidates said they have struggled to inform voters about the office itself. It is a among a clutch of fairly obscure elected positions at the court house — along with register of wills, orphans court judges and sheriff — with roots in Maryland’s early history.
The Conaway family controlled several of the jobs for years. Frank Conaway’s wife, Mary, and then daughter Belinda served as Register of Wills, whose province is the affairs of dead Baltimoreans.
No Republican is running, so winning the Democratic primary will secure victory at the general election in November.