Democrats Left Scratching Their Heads After Losses

November 25, 1990|By Samuel Goldreich | Samuel Goldreich,Staff writer

The Democratic love train became a familiar sight to county residents this year, as Gov. William Donald Schaefer rolled around the county with local party leaders in search of straight-ticket voters.

But Democratic losses in races from county executive and County Council to sheriff and clerk of the Circuit Court have some observers wondering whether the party lacks the steam or the stokers to reach its destination.

So far, most Democrats are looking for signs of optimism in defeat, blaming losses on voter frustration with incumbents rather than failures of their party.

This was supposed to be the Democrats' year, when their executive candidates were going to put traditional fractiousness behind them and elect one of their own to succeed O. James Lighthizer, the only Democrat to win in 25 years of charter government.

The four Democratic primary contenders ran campaigns mostly on the issues. They ran without the sort of name calling that might have been expected in a year when concerns about ceaseless growth, a degraded environment and runaway property assessments fueled a tax revolt and anti-incumbent mood among voters.

Democrats took it as a sign of unity and strength when two-term Councilman Theodore J. Sophocleus defeated his closest rival by almost 2-to-1. They quickly closed ranks, with former Annapolis mayor and runner-up Dennis M. Callahan, Glen Burnie Councilman Michael F. Gilligan and former state delegate Patricia Aiken all pledging their support.

Sophocleus gained strength throughout the summer and early fall, as every public employee union save one and a coalition of environmentalists backed him over Republican Robert R. Neall.

Opinion polls and endorsements from The Evening Sun and the Annapolis Capital further buoyed Democratic hopes. Neall, a presumed prohibitive favorite early this year, appeared to have been derailed by Sophocleus' populist appeals.

But when Sophocleus abandoned thoughts Wednesday of challenging his 3,067-vote (2 percentage points) loss Nov. 6, he offered the most straightforward explanation for Neall's win.

"There is no one reason that I lost. It was an accumulation of things," he said. "But the people here are very conservative, and they've always voted that way."

"I really am hard-pressed to put my finger on a reason," said Jerry Grant, chief aide to U.S. Representative Tom McMillen, D-4th, who was expected to carry more than the 59 percent of the vote he got to win a third term.

But Grant has an explantion for his boss's poor showing, as well as Schaefer's defeat in this county and other Democratic disappointments.

Virtually every day, he said, county residents read stories about state property assessments driving up their taxes, or streams fouled with construction sediment, or plans for a superhighway in their backyards to ease interstate traffic or elaborate designs to renovate the governor's mansion and dig up ancient trees to build a fountain.

"It almost becomes a referendum on style and personalities, in some ways, instead of how the state and county are run," Grant said. "When you've got a county where almost every elected official is Democratic and you've had Democratic leadership for many years and you have this anti-incumbency feeling, who do you take it out on?"

State Sen. Michael Wagner, D-Ferndale, agreed, but he reached to the national level to understand the plight of local Democrats.

"There is a liberal and a conservative faction of the Democratic Party, and a lot of us don't subscribe to the platform of the Democratic convention," said Wagner, whose constituents consistently vote for Republican presidential candidates and helped return U.S. Representative Marjorie Holt, R-4th, to office six times before she retired in 1986. "I mean, how are we going to win with Mondale and Carter and McGovern and Dukakis?"

Retiring Councilwoman Carole Baker, D-Severna Park, said the same voters who decided that a charter amendment to cap property taxes was perhaps too radical believed that Neall could be better counted on to keep spending under control.

"There was a fairly sophisticated choice made here," she said. "I think the voters made a choice to vote for the person who is most fiscally conservative. I don't think it was anti-incumbency so much as the verbiage in Baltimore County and Arundel coming from the winners and their positions on spending and taxes."

Baker, who did not seek a third term, led an effort here to defeat the tax measure and said voters here and in Baltimore County followed advice to determine spending priorities through their choice of elective representatives.

In other Democratic defeats, Dennis F. Rasmussen lost his bid for re-election as executive in Baltimore County, where voters also rejected a tax cap, and Howard County Executive Elizabeth Bobo was defeated amid concern over rapid growth.

Wagner offered an alternative explanation for Democratic county losses this month, citing the peculiarities of specific races that cost local officeholders their jobs.

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