What Matters on Tuesday By Daniel Berger

Daniel Berger

November 03, 1990

THIS IS THE LAST election of which the Supreme Court will read the returns before deciding whether to reopen Roe v. Wade.

That's at the congressional level. In Maryland, the voters are electing the General Assembly that will rewrite the abortion law that will be in place if Roe v. Wade is erased.

Everywhere, voters are electing the legislatures that will redraw congressional districts based on the 1990 census. Two trends are visible. The federal budget compromise ended with a raft of commentators announcing that Democrats would benefit. Americans being an impressionable bunch, some might vote as they are told. But the same voices announce that a tax revolt is spreading. In Maryland it is concentrated in Baltimore and Anne Arundel Counties. It should mean a shift to Republicans, who talk a better anti-tax game than their opponents.

So, pick the trend that suits.

Two state elections have enormous national implications.

North Carolina was known as a progressive state for decades until it elected Jesse Helms to the Senate as a reward for negative campaigning, right-wing excess and coded crusades against blacks, Communists and homosexuals. Lately, he has thrown the arts world into turmoil. He is a true pillar of the Right. Without him, part of it would fall down.

When polls showed Harvey Gantt, the Democratic challenger, marginally ahead, veteran North Carolina observers concluded that Jesse had won again. The theory is that he always does so well with last-minute negative advertising, that an early marginal second place is really a lead. Its corollary is that polls overstate a black candidate's votes from white electorates.

Lately Republicans and pundits have been in panic that the old Helms magic may not be working. Tarheels, the new thinking goes, have heard it too many times. Experts are ducking for cover, calling this race too close to call.

If Mr. Gantt becomes the first black Democratic senator and the first black senator since Edward W. Brooke, Republican of Massachusetts in the 1970s, the breakthrough would be larger than Douglas Wilder's. It would show that white electorates are willing to elect black candidates -- at least in the Upper South.

Mr. Gantt would join Governor Wilder, Mayor David Dinkins of New York, Democratic National Committee chairman Ron Brown, Mayor-presumptive Sharon Pratt Dixon of Washington and Representatives William H. Gray III of Philadelphia and John Conyers Jr. of Detroit in positions of leadership they did not have in 1988. Not only would Jesse Jackson's grip on the political process be loosened if blacks do well in mainstream politics, the argument for statehood for the District of Columbia would be undercut.

The leading argument for it is white unwillingness to elect blacks, implying that the black ninth of the United States is not going to get one lousy U.S. Senate seat any other way. This is a valid argument, and the only one. Everything else about the District argues that no one should dream of considering it a state. The black-senator argument, however, can be only rebutted with black senators. First, you need one.

The other race that matters is for governor of California. The largest state's governor is always a candidate for president or, if new and untested, for vice president.

If Sen. Pete Wilson, a well-respected Republican, wins it, his name will top the rumor list of substitutes for Dan Quayle on the Bush ticket in '92, while Mr. Quayle will be touted for No. 2 on the Wilson ticket in '96.

If the Democrat, Dianne Feinstein, wins, the pressure for her to be named vice presidential nominee on the (Cuomo? Bradley? Bentsen?) ticket in 1992 would be immense.

Closer to home, two elections turn on whether voters require standards of decency for holders of public office. Mayor Marion Barry of Washington, whom everyone knows to be a sleazeball and many think to be also the victim of a Justice Department vendetta, seeks election as councilman-at-large in Washington. He would be a pain in the caucus to any new mayor, particularly a newcomer to municipal government such as Ms. Dixon. This election hardly turns on how the District should be governed. It is a second jury's opinion on the crimes of Mr. Barry.

The First Congressional District of Maryland may be the one Democratic seat in Congress going Republican while most anti-incumbency swings the other way. But election of Wayne Gilchrest, the Republican, would do more than repudiate the Democratic incumbent, Roy Dyson, for his service to country, degree of candor, staff management and coziness to special interests.

Mr. Gilchrest would revive the liberal Republican tradition of Theodore R. McKeldin, Charles Mathias and Rogers C. B. Morton, who long held the seat, ten years after the nomination of Ronald Reagan pronounced that tradition dead. Whether they like it or not, First District voters are making a decision not only for their district but for the future of the Republican Party. As the newest voters might say: Awesome!

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