Victims and victors in a riptide of voter discontent

Frank A. DeFilippo

November 08, 1990|By Frank A. DeFilippo

A YEAR ago, Dennis Rasmussen was chosen the outstanding county executive in America. Today he's looking for work.

Howard County Executive Elizabeth Bobo spent four years slipping and sliding between no-growth constituents on the one hand and the spreading anger of developers on the other. She failed to satisfy either. Voters have apparently given her the heave-ho.

In Anne Arundel County, Robert Neall appeared to fizzle like a Roman candle and in the end was written off by most polls and pundits, the victim of a populist Democrat named Ted Sophocleus. Now Neall looms as the state's major player in Republican politics and a potential candidate for governor.

And after years of shucking and jiving the voters of his largely rural but complex district, Rep. Roy Dyson was upended by folksy school teacher Wayne Gilchrest in a rematch of the 1st District's morality play.

They are the notable casualties and victors of Maryland's riptide of voter discontent. The state not only bucked the national trend that seemed to forgive and embrace incumbents, but it also handed the Republican Party the executives of three major counties where it had none at all and awarded the GOP a third member of the state's congressional delegation to boot.

Republicans have consistently registered more new voters than Democrats. But the newly arrived Republicans are more aberrations of local politics than they are part of an immediately discernible trend toward a genuine two-party state.

Not even the irrepressible Gov. William Donald Schaefer was immune to the wrath of the voters. He won, of course, with a respectable 61.7 percent of the vote, less than the 63 percent of Gov. Marvin Mandel at his high point or the 62 percent of Harry R. Hughes, and far, far below his own astonishing 82 percent record of 1986. In short, the voters scaled Schaefer down to human size.

In winning, however, Schaefer lost every Eastern Shore County to a little-known Republican and former diplomat, William Shepard, the capital seat of Anne Arundel County as well as two Western Maryland counties where he was thought to be larger than life because of his economic development efforts. The losses were more than just a tweak factor.

Members of the General Assembly will surely note Schaefer's downsizing. While the power of the executive may not be diminished, the noise of the battles will surely intensify and the frequency of defiance will multiply.

Schaefer is not a lame or even a crippled duck yet. He'll have a two-year grace period this term because of reapportionment, which occurs in 1992. Until then, the reapportionment maps will serve as a system of rewards and punishments in which a squiggle on the map can eradicate a belligerent incumbent.

Unlike most of the nation, the anti-incumbent fervor of the September primary elections did not lower its angry voice in Maryland. In much of the nation, voter hostility seemed to soften once the battle of the budget was resolved and legislators abandoned Washington. The public at large seemed to be saying they're all bums except mine. He's OK. The cumulative effect worked in favor of incumbents.

By contrast, the ferocity of Maryland's voters intensified, claiming three members of the Baltimore County Council as well as popular and long-standing members of the General Assembly and other legislative bodies across the state. The abortion issue, except in isolated cases, was not the silver bullet that it was in the primary.

NTC In the pathology of politics, the send-'em-a-message vote revealed more confusion than determination on the part of the electorate. At the same time voters in Baltimore County were ejecting Rasmussen for what were viewed as his free-spending ways, for example, they also rejected a cap on property taxes and, in fact, approved every bond issue on the ballot.

Anne Arundel also rejected a tax cap and Montgomery County, which had two proposals on the ballot, voted for the least restrictive of the two. While voters grump about taxes and spending, they seem unwilling to sacrifice the quality of their services.

In Rasmussen's case, his monogrammed shirts, his helmet of hair and his Italianate suits became symbols of deeper discontent. In tossing him out of office, the voters nevertheless approved of much of what he stood for. Very simply, he had lost touch with the people.

In Howard County, overdevelopment was a major issue in the election. Yet the voters booted out Angela Beltram, the County Council's leading no-growth advocate.

The size of the vote was nearly double that of the primary. The high undecided vote only two days before the election indicated that most voters made up their minds within hours before the election. The vote was heaviest in Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties, where the most was at stake.

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