For many candidates, abortion stance is the primary issue

September 10, 1990|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Evening Sun Staff

Janice Piccinini's campaign slogan is "Finally, A Choice!" -- a reference to her stance in favor of abortion rights.

Piccinini's opponent in the heated battle for the Democratic nomination for state Senate in the 10th Legislative District in Baltimore County, incumbent Francis X. Kelly, had this headline in his recent mailing to constituents: "The real issue in this campaign is taxes and spending."

The divergent strategies the two candidates have adopted are typical of several primary election races to be decided tomorrow in which abortion has been a key issue. Abortion-rights candidates have been talking about the issue as much as they can. Anti-abortion candidates aren't hiding their positions but are talking about anything else.

"The choice issue is the most important issue in the campaign," Piccinini says. "Senator Kelly refuses to talk about that issue.

"This candidate plans on bringing it up. I plan on letting the voters in this district know exactly what kind of bill he introduced," Piccinini says, referring to a Kelly-sponsored bill that would have strictly limited what kind of abortions could be

performed in the state.

Kelly, a leader of the anti-abortion forces in Annapolis, counters that voters in his district are more concerned about property taxes and the light-rail crossing at Timonium Road than with abortion.

"I've knocked on thousands of doors this summer," says Kelly, now in his third four-year term. "If three people have mentioned abortion to me, it would be surprising."

The Kelly-Piccinini race is one of a handful of key legislative races around the state where abortion may play a crucial role.

At stake are several seats in the state Senate, which stopped working for eight days earlier this year when a band of 16 senators filibustered against an abortion-rights bill. Sixteen senators are the bare minimum needed to sustain a filibuster in the 47-member Senate. With a net gain of one vote, abortion-rights forces could end any future filibuster and control the issue.

In the 1986 state elections, no incumbent senator was defeated. This year, at least six senators -- including five with anti-abortion views -- have solid challengers who have made abortion an issue.

"It's my feeling that anti-choice candidates are ducking the issue the best they can," says Karyn Strickler, director of the Maryland chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League, which has contributed more than $13,000 to abortion-rights candidates. They're trying to hide from the issue . . . because people are out to make sure that everyone they elect, including the dog catcher, is pro-choice."

Both NARAL and Choice Political Action Committee, another abortion-rights group, have publicized their endorsements, including Choice PAC's announcement yesterday that it would deliver a last-minute infusion of $12,000 to the campaigns of Piccinini and two other abortion-rights candidates.

Maryland Right to Life, on the other hand, made its endorsements behind the scenes, leaving it up to the candidates to publicize the group's support.

Joy Ebauer, president of Maryland Right to Life, says now that strategy may have been a mistake.

But, Ebauer disputes the idea that her side's favored candidates are ducking the abortion issue.

"The people on our side are multi-issue candidates," Ebauer says. "They don't want to be labeled as strictly anti-abortion candidates."

State Sen. Leo E. Green, an abortion opponent, has made that a theme in his heated campaign against Terezia S. Bohrer.

"That's what her whole campaign is about," says Green, D-Prince George's. "I don't know any pro-life person who is going make it an issue. They make is such a big issue. We just respond, that's all."

No matter what the legislature does, the whole issue will probably end up as a referendum question before the public, Green says. And, he adds, the voters "don't even know what a filibuster is."

Bohrer, director of disability support services in Prince George's County, says she wants to talk about other issues, such as

health care or Green's alleged abuse of senatorial scholarships.

But, Bohrer says, her position on abortion is "in all my literature. I bring it up every night when I door-knock. I bring it up in every debate and speech.

"His literature doesn't mention the word abortion or choice," she says. "So people don't have any idea. The very large majority of the people do not know his position on this issue."

Brad Coker, who runs Mason-Dixon Opinion Research in

Columbia, says his polls show that a comfortable majority of Marylanders support abortion rights.

"I think anybody who is going to be way out front on the pro-life side runs a real risk," says Coker, who has done in-depth polling in about 20 of the state's 47 legislative districts this year. "They're not going to advertise it, but come Election Day, most voters will figure it out themselves."

Coker says his polls show that about four out of 10 voters will not vote for someone who does not agree with them on the abortion issue. In that group, abortion-rights supporters outnumber opponents by a 2-1 margin, Coker says. Women under the age of 45, in particular, will use abortion as a litmus test in the voting booth, he says.

Steven Rivelis, director of Choice PAC, says, "If you're going to knock off an incumbent, you have to find a way to shake up the public to do something they didn't do before."

Abortion, Rivelis says, is an issue that will get voters to "change their voting habits."

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