The Tsongas Belt Suburbs Hold the Key to '94 Governor's Race

August 15, 1993|By HERBERT C. SMITH

For Republicans who want to be governor, Maryland historically has been the political equivalent of Death Valley. This is a state that has elected a Republican governor a mere six times in the 32 gubernatorial elections since 1867, a state where Democrats maintain a two-to-one advantage in statewide voter registration.

So what explains why Republicans such as Rep. Helen Delich Bentley and Anne Arundel County Executive Robert Neall are seriously considering abandoning their safe seats to run for governor -- in defiance of both history and political odds?

The reason is simple: Both of them can count. They've already calculated that with four major Democratic gubernatorial candidates -- Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, Lt. Gov. Mickey Steinberg, Attorney General Joe Curran and Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening -- cutting each other to shreds in the primary, the likely nominee to emerge from such fratricide will be Mr. Schmoke. And from the Republican perspective, such an urban-oriented Democrat would be the ideal opponent.

However, before they decide to enter the fray, both Ms. Bentley and Mr. Neall would be well advised to stop looking at early polls and examine more significant numbers. In fact, if the Democrats have a three-horse primary, the winner could be a suburban-oriented candidate -- Mr. Steinberg.

The reality of the emerging demography in Maryland politics is the phenomenon known as the "Tsongas Belt," composed of the affluent Maryland counties of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, Howard and Montgomery, where shopping malls and quarter-acre plots have replaced ward organization and row houses in political importance. Quite simply, a revolution occurred last March in the Democratic presidential primary, when Paul Tsongas defeated Bill Clinton. As revolutions go, it was purely local in impact. The Maryland defeat was merely a blemish on Mr. Clinton's drive to the Democratic nomination.

For his Maryland campaign, Mr. Clinton had enlisted scores of elected officials, including Mayor Schmoke, whose enthusiastic endorsement was based on the Arkansan's proposed urban policy of targeted aid to American cities. Mr. Tsongas rejected such traditional Democratic blandishments. He preached a doctrine of governmental and fiscal restraint. He assailed Mr. Clinton's extensive list of proposed programs with a mocking sound bite: "I'm running for president, not Santa Claus."

Mr. Clinton's old-style Democratic appeal worked well in Baltimore City and Prince George's County, the most urban of the suburban counties, and in 14 other Maryland subdivisions. In years past, combining wins in the city, Prince George's and a host of smaller counties would almost surely have provided victory. For example, in the 1966 primary election for governor, Baltimore City alone cast 31 percent of the total statewide vote. But population declines and dwindling Democratic turnouts, coupled with the burgeoning growth of the suburbs, cut Baltimore's share of the total statewide vote to just 17 percent in 1992. In addition, while the city's Democratic registration fell by almost 27,000 voters in the last five years, the Tsongas Belt counties gained a whopping 90,000 new Democrats.

For Mr. Clinton, the urban strategy just wasn't enough. Mr. Tsongas ran well ahead in the six suburban subdivisions and carried Frederick and Talbot counties as well. In terms of the statewide Democratic vote, the Tsongas Belt counties contributed a whopping 54 percent of the total to establish themselves as the new drive-wheel in Maryland politics.

Voting power aside, however, what makes the Tsongas Belt so significant is what the suburban shift demands of statewide candidates. Despite the difference between Essex and Rockville, there is what political analyst William Schneider terms a "defining characteristic" of suburban voters. They own property and pay mortgages and local property tax.

So suburbanites are touchy about taxes. But Tsongas Belt voters do not shun all government services. They support distributive programs that benefit everyone equally,such as education, police protection, highways and environmental protection. They do not look kindly on redistributive programs that target urban poverty. Suburbanites know where the money must come from for those programs.

Come September 1994, the new realities of the Tsongas Belt will confront the wannabees for governor in the primaries. Already Mayor Schmoke has assumed an early lead as conventional wisdom's frontrunner among the unannounced but expected four major Democratic candidates. The Schmoke lead is based on early public opinion surveys and the anticipation of strong black support in the primary.

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