Democrats find string of causes for the backlash

November 08, 1990|By Thomas W. Waldron and William Thompson | Thomas W. Waldron and William Thompson,Evening Sun Staff

Dennis F. Rasmussen . . . Elizabeth Bobo . . . Sidney Kramer.

Two months ago, they were three of the brightest stars in Maryland's immense Democratic galaxy -- county executives in three of the state's major jurisdictions.

Today, they, along with many other Democrats across the state, are apparent losers -- victims of a powerful voter backlash that was partly partisan, partly ideological and partly just a normal midcourse correction the electorate likes to make now and then.

The reasons for defeat vary from race to race.

In the Baltimore County executive's race, Rasmussen took heat not only for rising property taxes but also for his monogrammed shirts and double-breasted suits.

In the Howard County executive's race, voters felt "general dissatisfaction with the administration," according to Charles I. Ecker, the retired school official who appears to have defeated Bobo, pending the count of absentee ballots. Voters were dismayed by government spending and unchecked development and felt, all in all, "left out of county government," Ecker said.

In Montgomery County, Kramer, a multimillionaire businessman and developer, lost the September primary and then lost again Tuesday night when his write-in campaign drew only about 20 percent of the vote. The winner in Montgomery was Neal Potter, a 75-year-old county councilman who had pledged to limit growth and the influence of developers.

Growth and government spending weren't the only issues behind Democratic defeats.

J. Jeffrey Griffith, another Democrat, lost his race for the state Senate in Carroll County partly because he was considered too liberal and partly because he left for a vacation in Scotland in the middle of the campaign, observers said.

Whatever the reasons, the biggest winner was the Republican Party. While the party failed to take any statewide races, it did make other gains, picking up one congressional seat, three county executive seats, several positions on local councils and commissions, a couple of sheriff's posts and a dozen seats in the General Assembly.

"Had we not had a party that has turned around, we would not have been poised to make the gains we did," said Joyce L. Terhes, the "ecstatic" head of the state GOP. "Had we still been fighting among ourselves, we wouldn't have been there to seize the window of opportunity."

John T. Willis, a Democratic Party activist and political historian, said the Republican victories were impressive but said incumbent Democrats take a hit every 15 to 20 years in Maryland. In the mid-1970s, Willis noted, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties all had Republican executives.

"The Democrats have always been the 'in' party, so when there's an anti-incumbency reaction, it's usually the Democrats who are in power and who are thrown out," Willis said.

Republicans shouldn't get too confident about their showing Tuesday, said Nathan Landow, chairman of the state Democrats.

In particular, Landow said, the victory by Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest over five-term incumbent Roy P. Dyson in the 1st District congressional race was due to Dyson's own "flaws."

"If I were Mr. Gilchrest, I would not get too comfortable with that position," Landow said.

In the category of victorious-but-wounded comes the biggest Democrat of them all, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who lost 12 counties to William S. Shepard and collected just 59.7 percent of the vote. Schaefer also showed he had almost no coattails, as many of the candidates he campaigned hardest for -- including Bobo, Kramer, Griffith and Democrat Theodore Sophocleus, who ran for the Anne Arundel County executive's seat -- were defeated.

Schaefer, whose winning margin was lower than expected, yesterday seemed to be reminding himself and everyone else that he won. "Don't underestimate that," he said. "I won. I won."

Schaefer blamed his margin not on an unhappy electorate but on his campaign staff, which he said placed too much emphasis on an aborted volunteerism effort and too little on the governor's accomplishments.

"I think some of the people in the hierarchy of the staff were idealistic. They didn't understand the realities of politics," Schaefer said. "I think they just miscalculated."

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