Last January I was getting ready to shut down my criminal justice blogging. I had written on most every topic, and the same old issues and themes were just repeating themselves. And after six years away from the state's attorney's office, I felt I was losing my special insight into the system. I didn't want to be just another mouth spouting off opinions.
Then I got a message from a friend asking me to run against Judge Alfred Nance, and I agreed. I lost in the primary last month. I expected to lose, and perhaps that’s one reason I did. But let me summarize once more my thoughts on those responsible for Nance’s continuance as a judge.
Governor Martin O’Malley. O’Malley had no business reappointing Nance. But that’s O’Malley, whose focus first and foremost is himself. He built his early notoriety as a city crime fighter, using smoke, mirrors, Clintonesque personal energy, and the vacuum of other leadership. But he who deceives or sells out the public in small matters will do so in large matters. America, beware.
The Maryland Bar. By “bar” I refer to all the lawyers in the associations and committees and commissions who run the judicial selection, election and disciplinary process. Rather than hold judges to higher standards, they provide them more protection than ordinary employees. They won't distinguish between protecting the legitimate exercise of judicial discretion and shielding judges who misbehave and even commit crimes. Once a judge, always a judge, that’s their motto, and the people be damned. They failed to remove Nance 13 years ago for harassing women, and watched him continue to misbehave. After his re-appointment by a governor too busy running for president to care or risk controversy, they poured money into Nance's re-election. They even lied for him, calling him “tested and trusted.”
The Media. What a difference in the media between my race for judge 16 years ago and now. Back then, even though I had not named my targeted judges and nothing negative was yet in the public record about them, I was interviewed by the editorial boards of the Sun and the Afro-American and by a reporter for the Jewish Times. Dan Rodricks of the Sun wrote a helpful column.
This time, with Nance's rich public exposure and other leads to explore, nearly nothing was published about the contest subsequent to my announcement last February. The Sun printed one short article in June which briefly mentioned that Nance "once received an official reprimand for his treatment of women." It never touched on his continuing harassing and intemperate behavior, or explained why politicians blindly endorse the sitting judges. Even Rodricks, who complained in two post-election columns about citizens who don't vote, remained silent. I called TV reporters and e-mailed editors, to no avail. I shudder to think about the lack of media attention to issues of greater importance than Nance. It's scary to realize how inadequately the press now covers local government.
The Voters. I was amazed how many people popped out of the woodwork to express their dismay with Nance after they heard I was running, people who had sat as prospective jurors in his courtroom: a man at my local dog park, a woman at work, a colleague of a friend, etc. None of them knew each other and all had the same opinion of Nance. Had more voters seen him in action, he'd be gone. Had more voters done just a little bit of homework, he'd be living in retirement now. But voters prefer to be fed their information, and they ate up the mailings from the Sitting Judges, who used Elijah Cummings as their champion for Democratic voters and Helen Bentley for Republicans. The man from the dog park called up Bentley and asked her why she was supporting Nance. She admitted that she didn’t even know him. Most of us are just too busy to make a call like that, to work at voting. Impressions, assumptions and inertia guide our decisions. As the saying goes, in a democracy people get the government they deserve.
The Candidate. Most successful candidates really want the jobs they seek. I saw it as a duty, albeit self-appointed. Last time I ran, the sitting judges pressured the state's attorney, my boss, to make me take a leave of absence from work, something she had originally assured me I would not have to do. So, unpaid and with nothing else to do, I walked neighborhoods and raised a little money and printed yard signs and literature and went to farmer’s markets and candidate forums. I lost to the money and influence of the sitting judges.
This time I had a teenage son and an aging mother and a full-time job, so I primarily used direct mail to a targeted audience that I could afford to reach (with my own money and a couple of contributions.) I lost again, though it was gratifying to wake up to the Sun's "Circuit Court races too close to call." In hindsight, I could have done this or that and maybe gotten a few more votes to at least get past the primary. Raising money is the number one thing, both to reach voters and get the media to take a candidate seriously. (No money, no press.) But I couldn't even ask a prospective voter for a glass of water on a blazing hot day, let alone for money. Not a winning characteristic for a candidate.
And now back to the ducklings. I don’t know what happened to those nine after they reached the Inner Harbor. They were so tiny! Some surely perished, maybe most of them.
But I tried. That is what I have always done. I have tried to do my best in every endeavor. I have tried to make a difference and tell the truth. I risked my own career to say and do what I thought was right, and made enemies of people who didn't like what I said or how I said it, even when they admitted the truth of it. As a supervisor once told me, I didn't have a self-preservation bone in my body. I have made mistakes, and not always expressed myself in an ideal fashion. One friend likes to say that our strongest attributes can also be our Achilles heel, and that probably applies to the passion that has always driven me.
But I am happy with both the journey and my destination. I have learned so much that would have escaped me had I stayed in the box. I would rather be me than two judges I know who became closely tied to the O’Malleys. These two were indebted, personally and professionally, to a state official who helped them early in their careers. When as governor O’Malley fired this official, neither of them could bring themselves to call and express their condolences. And that is the way most of the world works.
In my experience, it's not a particular program, or process, or structure that makes a system work well. It’s the people who run it and work in it. And where people are self-interested, lazy, or afraid, mediocrity reigns. And when there's mediocrity in leadership, nothing changes.
In 1998 a man named Sam, who judging from his voice was an elderly African American, called me up to ask why the sitting judges had crossed my name off their sample ballot (their standard trick.) I started to explain that they were picked by the establishment, and called themselves “trusted,” but those of us in the system knew that wasn't true. He stopped me: “Say no more. You got my vote.” After I lost, I received flowers from some friends with a note: “And the winner is…the one who got Sam’s vote.”
Those who believe victory is everything would call me a sap or a loser, but I really did prefer Sam's vote. Sam made the effort to call. Sam understood that the establishment was not to be trusted in whole, and was willing to shake it up. I was proud to have his vote.
And I treasure friends like the ones who sent me that note, those who will never abandon a friend for self-interest or politics or differing points of view. Each of you know who you are.
So, knowing that I have done my very best to serve the public all my life, I now retire from the world of criminal justice. No more tilting at windmills.
But I will still be tending to ducks whenever I can.