Watch out! Here comes Perot!

Bruce L. Bortz

June 17, 1993|By Bruce L. Bortz

REMEMBER last Saturday? Sunny and warm. A perfect day for gardening, swimming, boating, anything outdoors. Guess how 2,500 Marylanders took advantage of those conditions. With little notice, they trekked over to UMBC to catch Ross Perot on his first stop of a three-state swing of rallies.

In a non-election year, with all the usual summer and weekend distractions, that's an astounding turnout. And it could signal two things: If Bill Clinton is a one-term president, Ross Perot could well be there to take over in 1996. And the "Perot factor" in next year's Maryland elections could be far bigger than most expect. For example, if the Perot forces back a Republican candidate for governor, that candidate could win convincingly with an anti-tax, anti-big government campaign. (In last week's special election for the U.S. Senate in Texas, the Perot forces, spotting a winner, delivered a de facto endorsement to Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison 48 hours before her landslide victory.)

The still-organizing Perot organization in Maryland, under its interim head, Joan Vinson, is focusing primarily on 1994 congressional races. Mr. Perot claims a force of 20,000 in Maryland, and by the fall, Mrs. Vinson believes, coordinators will be elected for each of the state's eight districts. In October, with its national charter in hand, the Maryland chapter hopes to elect its first state chairman. Eventually, the Maryland group will organize all the way down to county, township and voting district levels.

United We Stand, America in Maryland will not be a political party, Mrs. Vinson says. Its basic purpose, she says, is to educate members on key issues. Plans include the formation of study committees on the budget and on campaign reform. Probably in time for Maryland's 1994 General Assembly session, these committees may propose state and federal legislation.

For now, the Perot organization's tax-exempt status prevents either the national organization or state chapters from formally endorsing political candidates. But the Perot supporters found a way around that in Texas: Poll members on which candidates they prefer for the various offices in contention and, at a critical point in the campaigns, release the results to the media. In Texas, a heavily publicized survey showing Mrs. Hutchison the overwhelming favorite of the Perot group there put the race out of reach of appointed Democratic incumbent Bob Krueger.

The staging of (televised?) debates and the release of membership survey results will almost certainly force Maryland political candidates to seek the support of the Perot people. Already a number of Maryland members of Congress, among them Helen Delich Bentley, Roscoe G. Bartlett, Wayne T. Gilchrest and Steny H. Hoyer, have met with Mrs. Vinson and other Perot people in Maryland. Neil Solomon, the former state health secretary who could be fashioning a Perot-like candidacy for governor in 1994, has had preliminary discussions with United We Stand, America.

Mr. Perot's influence is increasingly evident. In Virginia and New Jersey, two states that hold statewide elections this year, his groups have conducted a series of candidate forums. One attracted 5,000 participants and 60 candidates.

Many here see Mr. Perot as a smart, capable, focused, charismatic centrist intent on bringing much-needed economic and campaign reform to the country. But the candidate did less well in Maryland (14 percent of the vote) than nationally (19 percent) in the presidential election. And his message seems more applicable to national issues and campaigns for national office than to state matters.

But beware! Mr. Perot has demonstrated an uncanny ability to shape the national debate -- to be the voice of protest against the status quo. Now he seems on the road to expanding his influence in state politics. Those who scoff at his organization's potential in Maryland do so at their own risk.

Bruce L. Bortz is editor of Maryland Report newsletter. His column appears here on alternate Thursdays.

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