In state comptroller race, it's novice vs. a Md. tradition

October 22, 1990|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun C. Fraser Smith of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

After days of introducing himself to voters at the Maryland State Fair, the Republican Party's candidate for state comptroller buttonholed a potential backer and reminded him to be sure to vote for Larry M. Epstein on Nov. 6.

"Oh, yeah, I always vote for Louis Epstein," the voter replied, apparently confusing Larry Epstein with the similar sounding name of his much better-known opponent, eight-term Democratic Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein.

It is hard enough for a challenger to unseat an incumbent, but Mr. Epstein, a 42-year-old political novice, is up against the closest thing in Maryland to a political colossus.

Now completing his 32nd consecutive year as Maryland's chief tax collector, the 77-year-old Mr. Goldstein made his first successful bid for public office -- as a state delegate -- nine years before Mr. Epstein was born. He has subsequently served in statewide office longer than anyone else in Maryland history.

Even though the incumbent is almost twice his age, Mr. Epstein grudgingly admits he is hard to keep up with, especially on the campaign trail.

"Every parade we're in, he's in. It's exhausting," he said.

Mr. Epstein, a certified public accountant from Glyndon and founding partner of the 60-employee Owings Mills accounting firm of Hertzbach, Sapperstein and Sidle, said he was constantly reminded that he was running against a Maryland tradition. Voters, he said, are "actually upset with me for running against him. It's like attacking their father."

But in a democracy, he said hopefully, "You're supposed to vote for the best person, not the person you like the best."

Mr. Goldstein, he claims, has simply been around too long, and it is unhealthy for the state to have one person serve in such an important job for so long. It is time for "new blood."

But, according to the Sun Poll conducted Oct. 4-11, 68 percent of the registered voters saw it differently. That majority favored Mr. Goldstein, while only 14 percent said they would back his little-known challenger.

To make a case for change, Mr. Epstein alleges that Mr. Goldstein no longer actively manages his agency but has become a mere figurehead. He criticizes the comptroller for too often bowing to the wishes of Gov. William Donald Schaefer in decisions on contracts or other matters before the three-member Board of Public Works, on which they both sit.

The GOP challenger also says Mr. Goldstein, as chairman of the Maryland State Retirement and Pension Systems, should be held responsible for bad advice allegedly given to hundreds of state employees and teachers about the tax liability of switching funds from the old Maryland state retirement plan to IRAs or other retirement plans. As many as 2,000 pension recipients could face tax bills totaling millions of dollars based on a July ruling by the Internal Revenue Service that the money they withdrew was taxable.

As a result, a $100 million class-action suit has already been filed against the state alleging that employees got the wrong advice. And Maryland's congressional delegation has introduced legislation to void any federal income taxes on the transferred funds. "There you see total breakdown," Mr. Epstein charged.

Although retirement agency officials have admitted that some employees may have misinterpreted written information distributed by the agency before 1989 and that some counselors may have given incorrect advice to individuals, Comptroller Goldstein and his aides have insisted the state retirement system was not negligent.

Mr. Goldstein, in fact, points to his stewardship of the pension system as one of the brightest spots in his long record, particularly the decision to sell about $2 billion of the pension system's stock portfolio just days before the stock market crashed in October 1987.

Mr. Goldstein's re-election platform is built on his claim that he is largely responsible for Maryland's generally sound financial foundation, including:

* A triple-A bond rating, making Maryland one of only eight states with the highest possible rating from all three major New York rating agencies.

* Maryland's receipt for the 10th consecutive year of the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting from the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States, one of only 14 states currently so honored.

* Recent ranking by Financial World magazine as "the best financially managed state in the nation" -- a tribute for which Mr. Schaefer, legislative leaders and others in state government also are taking credit.

Persistently ebullient, seemingly omnipresent, often stubborn and occasionally ornery, Mr. Goldstein does not seem to have slowed much despite a half-century of public service. When Mr. Epstein says he has spent too many years in the same job, Mr. Goldstein boasts of experience.

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