Primary results may energize fall campaign

September 16, 1990|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Fraser Smith covers Maryland politics for The Sun

Prospects for a spirited general election campaign this fall seemed no higher than the Orioles' prospects in the American League East until last Tuesday, when isolated cells of inflamed Maryland voters scaled the walls of incumbency to oust a dozen state legislators, a county executive and various other targets of opportunity.

The usual gnashing of teeth followed a record low turnout last Tuesday. But the few and the mighty exulted in the power of their votes.

And political leaders may prepare themselves a bit more carefully for Nov. 6. Three issues that resulted in incumbents being voted out -- abortion, growth and taxes -- may be difficult to ignore.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, though he nearly lost several counties on the Eastern Shore to a candidate who did not campaign, declared with characteristic bravado that he would change nothing in his approach to Republican nominee William S. Shepard, the retired foreign service officer who has held no public office.

"What's there to debate?" the governor asked in an interview last week. "My record against no record? I won't spend a lot of time debating."

As political strategy, the governor's posture was classic for a strong front-runner -- but not entirely convincing, and he went on quickly to make clear he has thought about his fall opponent.

"We won't be telling all the negative things about a Republican Party that has cut back on education, cut back on health, cut back on all the basic things that are so very difficult," he said. "I won't be saying anything like that. I just won't do that. I won't be discussing the cutback in mass transit. These issues, I'm not going to talk about. I will be restrained."

Sarcasm aside, Mr. Schaefer may well take the fall campaign more seriously than he did the primary, in which he did little campaigning for himself. He has already been charged by Mr. Shepard and others with arrogance in office, a charge that could seem valid if he remains noticeably aloof.

Even if he discounts Mr. Shepard, he may not wish to defy voters who want to know his plans in regard to taxes, to construction of new public transportation facilities such as light rail lines and to the management of the state budget, which currently faces a relatively small yet disturbing deficit.

Mr. Shepard, who barely survived a primary challenge by perennial candidate Ross Z. Pierpont, says mismanagement of the state's revenue will be his point of attack this fall.

Will Mr. Schaefer allow such questions to go unanswered? When Candidate Shepard said the state was headed for a deficit early in the summer, Schaefer aides said the charge was all wrong. Two weeks ago, the governor announced that sales tax revenues were down and program costs up, leaving a gap of just under $150 million.

"I would like to see a new emphasis on this deficit: how it came about, how we could have prevented it and how we can fix it. It's devastating to state departments. To have a Department of Human Resources, for example, that can't take care of foster children when we're under court mandate to care for them is horrendous. My major point is that we shouldn't be in this position," Mr. Shepard said.

Mr. Shepard, of course, will have his own candidacy to define. He selected his wife, Lois, as his lieutenant-governor running mate -- a choice that brought Dr. Pierpont into the primary and literally split the already-weak Republican Party in half. Neither Mr. Shepard nor his wife has a minute of experience in local or state government -- though Mr. Shepard has proved adept at finding aspects of the Schaefer administration to criticize.

In the general election, the Republican will be banking on the view that Mr. Schaefer's policies do not enjoy universal approval. Frederick M. Griisser Jr., the governor's primary opponent, drew about 100,000 votes though he hardly campaigned.

"My guess is that the votes Griisser got ought to concern Schaefer," Mr. Shepard said. "I think that there's an element of protest out there. To a great extent what you had on Tuesday was a protest of Democrats against Governor Schaefer, and a lot of those votes will come our way."

Even before the primary, the governor showed he was paying attention to the mood of the voters. On primary eve, Mr. Schaefer suddenly broke his silence on abortion. Alone among Maryland politicians, he had afforded himself the political luxury of keeping the voters guessing: Did he believe there are circumstances under which abortion is acceptable? If so, what were they? He had promised a position paper outlining his views, but the paper did not arrive in time for scrutiny by primary voters.

After the primary, Mr. Schaefer said the paper will be issued next week.

"It will start off by saying one of the most difficult issues from a moral, religious, personal, women's personal opinions, issue is the abortion issue. It's not going to be startling. It's just going to say where I stand."

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