Voters roared on Tuesday--and politicians will listen

November 11, 1990|By C. Fraser Smith

When the polls opened last Tuesday, Maryland public officials began to get acquainted with the new 800-pound gorilla of Maryland politics:

The voters.

With their kickin' shoes laced tight, people marched into ballot boxes all over the state with electoral mayhem in mind.

Overnight, career Democratic officeholders were wondering what to do with the rest of their lives. The hapless Maryland Republicans were carried to victory by the tide of unhappiness.

Three county executive seats -- in Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties -- were delivered to the GOP during the Tuesday massacre.

From sheriff to state Senate, the GOP posted impressive wins all over the state.

A grim yet occasionally joyous rebellion could be seen as voters protested higher taxes and no corresponding increase in services or quality of life.

On Rowe Boulevard in Annapolis, a candidate for County Council named Glenwood Gibbs had set up a sign and a three-person demonstration to grab the attention of motorists at rush hour.

First was a "Gibbs" sign. Next, a woman held a circular sign with a slash across the word "Incumbents." Finally, there was the candidate himself with a sign that said:

"Gibbs. That's me!"

Mr. Gibbs was not elected.

But the voters did find other "outs" to vote for in Anne Arundel, where the GOP won its first council victories in more than two decades. Even Chairwoman Virginia P. Clagett, D-7th, generally considered one of the most popular council members, came within 500 votes of losing.

"This has got to be the strongest Republican showing ever," said outgoing County Executive O. James Lighthizer. "It's got to be an anti-incumbency fever."

Often, though, it was not incumbency that bothered voters. It was what the incumbents were doing with their incumbency. The energized Maryland voter displayed a long memory.

In Baltimore County, a woman was asked why she voted against County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen.

"When he got in there," she said through clenched teeth, "the first thing he did was take a trip to Disneyland."

Aggressive voting of this kind tended to support the fear among politicians that getting identified with something negative in the voter's mind -- a tax on beverage bottles also seemed to hurt Mr. Rasmussen -- can be lethal.

Once a master at manipulation of symbols, Gov. William Donald Schaefer was hit for similarly perceived excesses last week.

Lillie Darling of Severna Park -- a lifelong Democrat -- voted against the Democratic governor because, she said, "He's done too much traveling at the taxpayers' expense."

"I'd like to get the bum out, though I'm sure he'll win," said Walter R. Hampe of Severna Park.

He said he sees Mr. Schaefer as a big spender. "Two years ago, we had a $250 million surplus. Now we have a $400 million deficit," Mr. Hampe complained.

"I wanted to get them all out," said Charles Smith, minutes after voting at Randallstown Senior High School.

At the same time, the new force in Maryland politics showed a deliberative side as well. One could call it the good gorilla, bad gorilla.

Voters installed new executives in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties -- but they declined to send them into office in fiscal straitjackets, voting down tax cap proposals. In Montgomery County, they rejected three spending limits and embraced a fourth that controls property tax increases -- but provides for a council override if the members find conditions warrant.

After giving it a lot of thought, Lillian Jackson, a Democrat and retired teacher who lives in Severna Park, worried that there might not be enough money for education and other services if the cap were enacted.

John Benke and his wife, Dorothy, both of Linthicum, both Democrats, said they talked about it together and decided to vote for Mr. Schaefer -- though it wasn't automatic, Mr. Benke said.

"Regardless of the things that have been said about him, we felt he's been doing a commendable job, and we decided to stick with Schaefer," Mr. Benke said. Though he thought about voting for Mr. Schaefer's opponent, William S. Shepard, Mr. Benke said he didn't like the idea that the GOP candidate had picked his wife as a running mate. "I didn't think that was proper. I was in business, and even there, you just didn't do that. Husbands and wives shouldn't be working together," Mr. Benke said.

Now, the new "ins" must try to assess what the voters want next.

In a few weeks, the Linowes commission on state taxes will issue its final report -- and the betting among members of the General Assembly is that new or increased taxes will be recommended.

If the voters are angry about higher and higher taxes -- and if senators and delegates were paying attention Tuesday -- the legislature might be reluctant to approve a lame-duck governor's request to raise taxes.

Mr. Schaefer was asked during a post-election news conference whether he was encouraged by the voters' rejection of the tax cap initiatives.

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