Judge Phil Arnold and former state Sen. Ron Grensky are ringing doorbells and shaking hands across Jackson County in an effort to win the most hotly contested judicial race this county has seen.

I've never seen a judge coming around here before, said Ted Vandermeer, after shaking hands with Arnold Thursday in his east Medford driveway. I'm impressed.

The same night, Grensky was meeting people at a trade show sponsored by the Chamber of Medford/Jackson County.

You were at the Lions Club the other day, said Claudette Moore, a real estate agent, who like many at the function had seen Grensky in other settings just that week. We need a fresh outlook in this town.

Before signs were even up for political candidates this season, Grensky and Arnold were saturating news pages and airwaves with political advertisements. Arnold has won the support of most of the legal establishment; Grensky is drawing support from conservatives and money from business and agriculture interests.

Retired Jackson County Judge Loren Sawyer said it's the highest-profile race he's seen since he came to Jackson County in 1959.

I think what's made it so high profile is probably Grensky has tried to make a political race out of it, he said. He's attacked Arnold on his past affiliations and past lawsuits and things of that nature. Phil likes his job, and he has to respond and do everything he can to get re-elected.

Grensky said he has been criticized on that point, but he's running this judicial race to win. For him, that means spending money to get his name out and asking people to look at both his and Arnold's past.

Grensky has pledged to seek only one six-year term if elected. He said the self-imposed term limit will keep new blood in the position.

There's no reason this needs to be a career move, he said. I think six years is plenty for any person.

Arnold, though, said that being a judge isn't like being a citizen legislator. He said he's watched longtime judges who do outstanding jobs.

This job is one that experience is particularly valuable in, he said. The way I'll decide whether to run again or not is whether I'm challenged or motivated by the job, and not based on any particular amount of time.

Arnold and Grensky are accustomed to the public spotlight.

Arnold was an active attorney and an Ashland city councilman for nine years. Grensky served in the state Senate from 1989 through 1992. During his tenure, Grensky worked toward developing sentencing guidelines for felony convictions, worker compensation reform and bringing more money to Southern Oregon schools.

Whenever he got onto something he believed in, he was like a bulldog and held onto it, said John Brenneman, a former Republican state senator from Newport, who served with Grensky. He was a very good orator. ... It's seldom you have an opportunity to sway anyone's vote, but he had the ability to sway votes.

Grensky did cause some controversy in his Senate days.

In February 1989 at a hearing on migrant labor-related bills, Grensky said: Eighty percent of our docket for criminal cases have Spanish surnames on them.

The comment outraged many people, especially the Hispanic community, who called the comment racist. A review of Jackson County criminal arraignments in the first four months of 1989 showed only about 11 percent of the crimes involved Hispanics.

Grensky conceded a few months after the comment that he was wrong, and when asked about the flap last week said the incident taught me a lot about the problems between their community and ours. He noted he attended Medford's Cinco de Mayo celebration this year.

Arnold didn't cause quite such a stir while in politics. He worked to make streets more accessible for the handicapped in Ashland, and when federal funding for social services was cut back, he worked to find city funding.

I don't remember anyone in town being upset with anything he's done, and you have to make decisions on the council that upset people, said Ashland Mayor Cathy Shaw. When he would vote against something or in opposition to what people felt passionately about, he would explain his stand in such a way that people felt heard.

Some of Arnold's work as an attorney has drawn criticism from some conservatives. In 1987, he represented two inmates who filed a civil rights lawsuit claiming the Jackson County Jail was overcrowded. The jail already had a population cap, but the lawsuit led to a settlement that set a limit of 190 inmates and a procedure for early releases.

Grensky mentioned the lawsuit at one joint forum.

Sheriff Bob Kennedy defended Arnold's representation.

If we tried to put 300 people in there, we wouldn't have had the resources to take care of them anyway, Kennedy said. A lot of our general public wouldn't care if they were stacked one upon another, but I care because the system isn't built to handle that many.

The fact that Arnold represented the American Civil Liberties Union in a few cases before becoming a judge rubs some the wrong way. One of the cases he worked on involved a girl who wanted to play football. Another time he fought against an anti-gay-rights ordinance in Medford.

For the conservatives, they have to swallow the fact that Arnold was a moving factor in the ACLU, said Monte Stamper, a conservative activist. That's a difficult thing for the conservatives to deal with.

Grensky said he believes a person's politics, their belief system, is a relevant issue that people should consider.

That person will be determining cases based on their view of the world, their life experiences, he said. Their belief system comes into play with deciding cases on a factual basis.

Fair is in the eyes of the beholder.

Arnold has been endorsed by many Republicans in this nonpartisan race. They include Medford Mayor Jerry Lausmann, Talent Police Chief C.W. Smith and radio talk show host Ken Lindbloom.

I think (partisanship) is an improper and invalid way to analyze who you vote for for a judge, Arnold said. The issue is qualifications to be a judge. A judge has to decide a case on the law and the facts, not on a partisan position.

When Gov. John Kitzhaber appointed Arnold to the bench last year, he said he based the decision on personal interviews and the opinion of the Jackson County Bar Association. The bar rated Arnold highest in a field of hopefuls and higher than Grensky in all seven categories: professional competence, integrity, fairness, temperament, experience, public service and overall performance.

In a bar poll released last month, 145 attorneys said they preferred Arnold for judge; 14 picked Grensky.

Former judge Sawyer said the legal community's lack of faith in Grensky isn't new. When Grensky applied to be a judge pro tem in Jackson County about — years ago, a committee of judges and attorneys recommended he not be selected.

We didn't feel he had the temperament, Sawyer said. He said about 10 percent of the attorneys who apply to be a judge pro tem are rejected.

Grensky said, though, he was told he wasn't considered for the position because he turned in his application late.

Judge Ross Davis, presiding judge of the Jackson County Courts, said there was some confusion because of the late application. A committee makes a recommendation to Davis, who then makes a recommendation to Chief Justice Wallace P. Carson Jr. of the Oregon Supreme Court. Carson makes the appointments.

I recall that a committee that advises the court did not recommend him for inclusion in our pro tem judge pool, Davis said. That was the recommendation to me as the presiding judge.

But there was also confusion because Grensky turned in his application late, Davis said.

There was some fast paper processing so that his application could be sent to the Supreme Court, Davis said.

Grensky was appointed by Carson in 1997 to be a pro tem judge in Josephine County.

Grensky acknowledges he's not popular among local attorneys. He pointed out, though, that it is rare for a sitting judge to lose a bar poll. His point in running, he said, is to allow the people to choose their judge, and not the lawyers.

A bar poll is nothing more than a special interest group saying who they want to be judge, Grensky said. To ask them who they want is a blatant popularity contest and nothing less.

He noted that Arnold has been gathering his backing since last spring when the appointments were in the balance.

Arnold said, though, that there is something to be learned from the bar polls.

These are the people who know us best, he said.

On Thursday when Arnold was going door to door, Ted Vandermeer noted that he had voted for Grensky when he ran for state Senate.

I was really disappointed when he quit, Vandermeer said. He did a really good job.

But Vandermeer, the 53-year-old Republican owner of a truck company, said Arnold has done a good job on the bench and should stay there. He was before him one time and said Arnold was fair.

Everyone has a place in life, and yours is to be judge, he told Arnold.

At the Chamber trade fair, Grensky was also getting high praise.

Jeff Pauley, a business owner, said he was told by attorneys he knew to vote for Grensky.

It's based on ethics and principles and fairness, Pauley said.

And everywhere both Arnold and Grensky went, there was always that shock of recognition: I've seen your picture!