Comes the GOP Challenge - Govern

November 11, 1990|By Barry Rascovar

WHAT HAPPENED Tuesday defies comparison with other historic political changes in the Baltimore region. Since the advent of home-rule govern-ment in these counties, Democrats have dominated legislative and executive offices. No longer, Republicans are kings in the suburbs.

This sudden reversal of fortune for a down-and-out minority party is stunning. In every Baltimore metropolitan county, Republicans rode a wave of angry discontent into office.

* Anne Arundel. The GOP's best hope for governor in 1994, Robert Neall, surprised even his own followers by coming from behind to win Arundel's top post. Two Republicans won seats on the seven-member county council. The GOP also swept out Democratic muldoons in the court clerk's office and the sheriffs department.

* Baltimore. Little-known Roger Hayden pummeled incumbent Dennis Rasmussen, fully capitalizing on the ABD vote ("anybody but Dennis"). The electorate's fury went deeper, catapulting three Republicans to victory in the seven-member council. A Democratic malcontent also won, giving 'the "outs" a council majority. Also forced from office an orphans court judge and the Democratic machine's sheriff.

* Carroll. Two of the three commissioners are now Republicans: so is the new state senator and the new sheriff.

* Harford. Republicans narrowly lost the county executive's race but seized control of the county council, finishing with five of seven seats.

* Howard. The GOP won the executive post by a thin margin, two of five council seats, five of the county's seven state legislative seats, the court clerk's office and two orphans court judgeships.

Not even in the 1960s, when Republicans held the reins of power in Baltimore city (Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin), Baltimore County (Spiro T. Agnew) and Anne Arundel (Joseph W. Alton), did the GOP fare so well. Never has this state's minority party made such an imprint on local councils.

There's no mystery why it happened. Voters were furious with office holders and they took it out on local incumbents - even if the incumbents weren't to blame. There - was little logic in their actions.

Mad about Congress' ineptitude and greed? Vote in a GOP county executive.

Mad about soaring property assessments imposed by state bureaucrats? Vote to put a Republican on the county council.

Furious over rapid growth and development that make your streets impassable and schools overcrowded? Vote into office a Republican sheriff.

Issues were irrelevant. Voters used almost any excuse to dump incumbents. Look what happened to Dennis Rasmussen, who performed exceptionally well in running Baltimore County yet failed miserably to communicate his achievements.

Instead of gaining credit for what he did, Mr. Rasmussen became a lightening rod for voters' rage. Everything about him infuriated the electorate. He wore monogrammed shirts. Boo. He let a police officer drive him around in a (used) Lincoln Town Car. Boo. He spent money to beautify the courthouse grounds. Boo. He failed to slash the property tax rate. Boo.

Even the color of his huge campaign signs - a deep red - made folks angry.

Compare this to the Republican alternative. Roger Hayden had soothing, blue campaign signs of modest proportions. His name itself is easy on the lips, rather than the harsher-sounding "Ras-mussen."

Yet his positions on issues were unknown. All he claimed was that he'd be sensitive to constituent complaints, work to reduce spending and drive himself to work. That was enough for Baltimore County voters.

What also helped Republicans through-out the region was the sharp gains they made in registering new voters. That, plus efforts by Del. Robert Kittleman of Howard County to recruit and train viable Maryland Republican candidates paid off handsomely.

Now elected Republicans face an unexpected challenge: figuring out how to govern. For instance, it has been a quarter-century since Republicans controlled Baltimore -County. Where do they turn for experienced hands with the proper credentials?

Worse, the Republican office holders take power as the local economy is collapsing. A recession looms. Tax revenues are slumping. Yet citizen demands continue to-grow.

Since the victors pledged not to raise local taxes, they are caught in a bind. How do you wipe out county deficits of tens of millions of dollars without upping the property-tax rate or cutting community services?

Still, this is the Maryland GOP's big chance. The party finally can showcase its best and brightest followers in high-visibility government Jobs, preparing them for future electoral races.

More important, the GOP has a chance to prove that its way of conducting business- -- watchful of spending, a smaller bureaucracy reluctance to expand services if it means increased taxes - will produce the desired results. If Messrs. Neall, Hayden, Howard's Chuck Ecker, Harford's Republican council and Carroll's Republican commissioners succeed in this quest, the GOP future in 1994 could be glorious, indeed.

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