Abortion-rights Candidates Ride Issue To Win

September 16, 1990|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Ms. Banisky covers the abortion issue for The Sun.

The throng of 750 devoted guests was beginning to drift away at the close of last July's Maryland Right to Life fund-raiser when Sen. Francis X. Kelly, one of the group's heroes, stood amid the crowd and insisted to a reporter, "Look, abortion just isn't an issue."

The assertion seemed peculiar from the man who led last March's anti-abortion filibuster. And, as Tuesday's primary results showed, it was wrong -- or wishful.

In the end, abortion was a monster issue in Mr. Kelly's Baltimore County district, possibly one that could not have been tamed, whatever strategy the senator used.

The eventual victor in the race, first-time candidate Janice Piccinini, embraced the abortion issue and claimed it for her own. Mr. Kelly, a respected 12-year Senate incumbent proud of his record on a variety of legislative issues, said he disdained single-issue campaigns and tried to shift the talk to other topics.

Anti-abortion strategists went along with that approach, although they concede now that they should have confronted the issue more directly.

"I'm convinced -- and I don't mean this in a denigrating way at all -- that I wasn't beaten by Janice Piccinini," Mr. Kelly said at week's end. "I was beaten by an issue with overwhelming emotion attached to it."

The results speak to that: Piccinini 61 percent; Kelly 39 percent.

The difference in the Piccinini and Kelly approaches to the campaign mirrored the different approaches that abortion-rights groups and anti-abortion organizations took around the state.

In the end, four senators who joined the anti-abortion filibuster were defeated by abortion-rights challengers. Anti-abortion fTC groups won at least two Senate primary victories. "But we lost more than we won on Tuesday," said Michael W. Burns, chairman of the Maryland Right to Life Political Action Committee.

Groups that favor abortion rights, mindful of polls that show most Americans favor keeping abortion available, chose to wave flags as they marched into the campaign battle. They wanted the public to know what they were doing and who their candidates were.

"The people who were pro-choice -- clearly and publicly and without hesitation pro-choice -- did well," said James Guest, the head of Planned Parenthood of Maryland.

But anti-abortion organizations chose to work out of the public eye.

"If they want to announce their strategy, that's fine," Mr. Burns said. "I'm not going to tip off the enemy."

Last week, after the votes were counted, Mr. Burns said his decision to work quietly had benefits and disadvantages: It deprived him of the chance to compete with abortion-rights groups for headlines. But it allowed him to put money in some campaigns without attracting the attention of abortion-rights supporters.

"I won races that I don't think they knew about," Mr. Burns said, mentioning Delegate Joan Pitkin's victory in Prince George's County.

Right to Life also supported Anne Healey, who won a Prince George's delegate seat. "If I'd made a big deal about that, [abortion-rights groups] could have gone knocking on that door," Mr. Burns said.

And in Northeast Baltimore, "at the last minute -- as in Sunday and Monday -- we started helping Martin O'Malley out" in a race that almost succeeded in upsetting Sen. John A. Pica, an abortion rights advocate.

Mr. O'Malley favors keeping abortion legal through the first trimester of pregnancy -- a view most members of Right to Life would scorn. But, Mr. Burns said, "It's a heck of a lot better than John Pica," who won the endorsement of Choice PAC and the Maryland affiliate of the National Abortion Rights Action League.

Right to Life, however, did not publicize its support -- meaning it ceded the headlines to abortion-rights groups.

"A big number of our candidates would have been ecstatic if we had done a big dog-and-pony-show press conference," Mr. Burns said. "But others weren't comfortable, and so we didn't."

The Right to Life list of endorsements was never officially released to the press. It was distributed last Sunday, Mr. Burns said, outside various churches.

Mr. Burns said some of the candidates he dealt with tried to move the campaign away from abortion onto other issues. But looking back, he said he should have pressed them harder to deal with abortion, and their role in the anti-abortion filibuster, first.

"If we were going to do it again, the best way to deal with the issue is to say what the issue is, explain what your position is, and move on," he said. "Not all of them would do that."

Mr. Kelly doesn't apologize for campaigning on different issues. But he is offended by the notion that he was ducking the abortion fight. As leader of the filibuster, he said, his beliefs could not be plainer.

"Who in this state made a clearer position on abortion than Frank Kelly?" he asked as he recapped the campaign last week.

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