The overrated abortion issue Local issues decide elections

Frank A. DeFilippo

September 27, 1990|By Frank A. DeFilippo

ANYONE who doubts that all politics are local ought to take a backward glance at the abortion issue and the Maryland primary.

No question about it: Abortion was the big bang issue. But as an electoral tidal wave, the case for abortion was overstated and overrated.

In most instances, personal peculiarities and local issues contributed to the undoing of candidates as much as abortion. And in others, voters made value judgments without questioning the value they were judging. They were just plain angry.

The most celebrated casualty of the primary election was Sen. Francis X. Kelly, of Baltimore County's 10th District. At first glance, it appeared that Kelly, a 12-year veteran of the Senate, was upended by Janice Piccinini's strident, one-note, pro-choice campaign. Toward the end of the primary campaign, Piccinini really got under Kelly's skin. Kelly refused to appear for debates, and Piccinini delighted audiences by arguing with an empty chair.

But the measure of Kelly's defeat by 61 percent to 39 percent suggests that Kelly was undermined by other factors, presumably his own longevity in the Senate and the appearance of arrogance that accompanied it.

Kelly was the leader of the anti-abortion forces and the eight-day filibuster in the Senate. Yet he represents a district that contains the largest Catholic parish in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, St. Joseph's, with more than 3,000 families, where he is a member.

Kelly got his start in politics in the '70 as a leader of the anti-tax group, Operation Stop. And he lost his seat in a district where anti-tax fervor is running high, a major contributor to his loss. As if to underline the point, even Piccinini declines to join County Executive Dennis Rassmussen's ticket because she believes he will lose the 10th District over the tax issue.

At the opposite end of Baltimore County, House Majority Leader John S. Arnick was able to salvage re-election by the dime-thin margin of six votes. Arnick has been in the House on and off for 20 years and appeared to be a safe bet to return.

But the rap sheet on Arnick is that he rarely spends time in his Dundalk district. And when he's there, he appears out of sync with his blue-collar constituents. He exudes the sweet smell of success. Arnick is given to Italianate suits, long outer coats with fur collars, and he tools around the pickup-truck district in a late-model Jaguar. That's hardly the appearance that will endear him to steelworkers and employees at General Motors' Broening Highway plant.

In Montgomery County, two more pro-life senators were defeated in contests that attracted the attention of abortion rights watchers. It's true that the abortion issue energized the challengers. But over factors played a role as well.

Sen. Margaret Schweinhaut was the grand old dame of the Maryland Senate, a 35-year veteran of the General Assembly. She was retired as much for her age and her lapses in the Senate as she was over abortion.

In another Montgomery County contest, Sen. Frank Shore had ignored much of the county's business in Annapolis for 20 years, staging publicity stunts and mugging for the cameras. He had a lean record and a mean opponent. His questionable record was as much an issue as abortion rights. The voters finally rejected him.

In Prince George's County, Sen. Frank J. Komenda, a pro-life senator, was defeated by Del. Gloria Lawlah, who is pro-choice. But the vote had more to do with racial politics than with abortion. Lawlah is black in a county that is nearly 50 percent black and in a legislative district whose population has shifted in favor of black candidates.

In Baltimore, only 44 votes saved Sen. John A. Pica Jr. from losing to a political newcomer in the 43d District. Martin O'Malley made much of Pica's poor attendance record in the Senate, which, compounded with personal problems, raised the issue of Pica's integrity.

At the top of the ticket, even Gov. William Donald Schaefer was not immune to the whims of local issues. His opponent, Fred Griisser, an unknown real estate salesman who waged no campaign and raised little money, collected nearly 100,000 votes. Griisser headed the drive two years ago to force the handgun ban to referendum, and Schaefer was instrumental in defeating the ballot question.

But gun nuts weren't the only voters for Griisser. Remember that the governor failed to carry Montgomery in 1986, and anti-Schaefer sentiment still runs high in the county. With anti-growth fever sweeping Montgomery, for instance, many voters resent Schaefer's insistence on building a light rail line from Bethesda to Silver Spring. They gave Griisser 12,000 votes.

And Schaefer almost lost four Eastern Shore counties because of the non-tidal wetlands issue. The issue itself is threatening real estate values and future development on the Eastern Shore.

And give Griisser a few more anti-Schaefer protest votes because of the governor's stubborn refusal (up to that point) to take a position on the abortion issue. Schaefer has since declared that he is personally pro-life but gubernatorially pro-choice.

From a distance, it appears that the abortion issue was given more credit than it deserves as the most persuasive influence in the primary election. It's still the issues closest to the voters that determine elections.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes regularly on Maryland politics. 8

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