The election: An exercise in non-participatory democracy

Frank A. DeFilippo

September 13, 1990|By Frank A. DeFilippo

MARYLAND voters had the best of both worlds in Tuesday's primary election: Those who stayed away waged a silent protest, and those who went to the polls voted with a vengeance.

Politics is a form-follows-function kind of business. Ignoring politicians and the polls is the social protest of the '90s. Non-participatory democracy has replaced demonstrating in the streets and generally raising hell as a way of making a point. Instead of tossing trash cans on the streets, as they did in the and '70s, voters now give their elected officials the cold shoulder.

Part of the voter turn-off in certain areas is the resentment over taxes. Another is the blurring of party lines and the disappearance of ideological causes. But the largest measure of indifference is the belief that a single vote doesn't make a difference.

In an age of instant gratification, computers, polls and the media give voters the results before an election is even held. Voting appears to have become an unnecessary exercise.

Traditionally, such attitudes are supposed to benefit incumbents and the established order of politics by allowing the election machinery to fall into the hands of the few determined voters (formerly known as the machine). But in what was supposed to be the year of the incumbent, even many incumbents weren't safe from the vengeance of the voters. A strong undercurrent sucked many of them under.

The voters cleaned, oiled and adjusted the machinery of the Maryland Senate so that it might be equipped to deal with the abortion issue without interference from motor-mouthed marplots.

They chose, at least primarily, the legislature that will redraw the state's congressional and General Assembly districts in new patterns that must last until the year 2004. And they rearranged the membership of the Maryland House and Senate with enough new faces in a way that will force major restructuring of the leadership of both bodies.

Along the way, Baltimore's vote-pulling power in Annapolis could be altered significantly because of the loss of Montgomery County Executive Sidney Kramer, a friend to Mayor Kurt Schmoke and Baltimore. His successor, Councilman Neal Potter, is a curmudgeon who exports xenophobia.

And even William Donald Schaefer wasn't immune to the strong tide of voter resentment against incumbents. His opponent, Frederick M. Griisser Jr., collected a respectable 100,000 votes. The vote was mainly an outlet for those who resented Schaefer's involvement in the handgun control bill two years ago. Griisser headed the petition drive to block the ban.

Schaefer spent much of the campaign season playing peek-a-boo with the electorate. The kind of campaign Schaefer ran did little to entice voters to the polls. Instead, much of the primary election's intensity was directed to the abortion issue and most of the media attention was focused on 1st District Rep. Roy Dyson, who has now used up three of his nine lives.

Voting is an emotional act. And the emotional tug of the primary election was the abortion issue. Again, the stay-aways abdicated the key races to a minority of voters and to the few candidates who were campaigning in overdrive.

Only one of four targeted pro-life senators, Leo Green of Prince George's County, survived the determined effort to create a filibuster-proof Senate. But an ironic twist is that two-term Sen. Frank J. Komenda, also of Prince George's, was defeated. Komenda is pro-choice, but he nevertheless voted to end the eight-day filibuster during the last session.

The most stunning upset was Janice Piccinini's defeat of Baltimore County's three-term incumbent Sen. Francis X. Kelly, who led last season's filibuster. Her one-note campaign was the most focused of all pro-choice campaigns in the final weeks and days of the season.

Other pro-life incumbents who were ejected from their Senate seats in Montgomery County were S. Frank Shore, who was defeated by Del. Mary Boergers, and Margaret C. Schweinhaut, the doyenne of the Senate, who was beaten by Del. Patricia R. Sher. Both Shore and Schweinhaut had participated in the filibuster.

Schaefer, lacking a serious challenge, for the most part worked hard to save endangered members of House and Senate fiscal committees. In the end, the governor even tried to salvage Kelly, vice chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, who thwarted Schaefer on the spending affordability issue for the past four years.

People who are content usually don't vote. For the most part, the primary election was open season on incumbents at every level of government. Voters who bothered to go to the polls at all were a determined minority with an ax to grind as well as blood in their eyes.

In America, the majority is supposed to rule. In Maryland, the minority of voters called the shots.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes regularly on Maryland politics.

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