County group's meeting lures would-be governors

August 22, 1993|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

OCEAN CITY -- They came to discuss landfill failures, bond ratings, the impact of term limitations on their pensions and a hundred other vexing issues.

But these participants in the Maryland Association of Counties' annual convention were constantly diverted by what a state government official called "gubernatorial preening."

Everyone touted as a contender for governor in 1994 -- and candidates for several other offices as well -- came to find allies, build on old relationships and construct networks for the campaign ahead.

They came, that is, to schmooze.

Their primary targets were 144 county officials, all of them members of MACO, men and women who run the state's 23 counties and Baltimore City.

The association ended its four-day convention here yesterday.

"Local officials mean so much to people," Gov. William Donald Schaefer said in a speech yesterday. "Because they do things that affect the lives of people."

Maryland's system of county government, providing most of the services citizens expect and depend upon, can give county officials a familiarity with voters that is denied to the more remote state legislator or even the governor.

Political scientists include them among a community's opinion leaders.

Thus, their attention was much in demand among office seekers.

During their various panel discussions, at pool-side receptions thrown by lobbyists and big businesses, at the annual crab feast followed by an ice cream social, political contenders were courting men and women suchas Baltimore Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector.

Mrs. Spector knew and enjoyed her role.

"I'm a grass-roots conduit," she said. "I'm who they need. People come up to me and say, 'Who should I vote for? Who'd be good for the city?' "

For the contenders, the convention offered one-stop canvassing what one lobbyist called "a target-rich environment."

"Rather than having to run from Pocomoke City to Frostburg, you see all the local officials in one room," says Maryland Republican Party chairman, Joyce Lyons Terhes, who is also a Calvert County commissioner.

Office seekers always come to the MACO convention, but this year they seemed more intense -- focused by a restive electorate bent on change, by the resurgence of Republicans as a force in Maryland politics and by the departure of Governor Schaefer after his constitutionally limited second term.

Political professionals may debate the importance of political leaders in an era of modern, television-dominated politics.

But few Maryland candidates would diminish their role.

"You won't win or lose on the basis of these contacts," says Parris N. Glendening, Prince George's County executive, a Democratic gubernatorial aspirant and former MACO president, "but you have to have them."

One of his potential Republican opponents, Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall, says the MACO convention is a mandatory stop on the long road to the 1994 fall primary and general elections.

"Unless you're Ross Perot [the Texas billionaire and former presidential candidate], someone who can drop in from outside the system, you have to do this."

Also subscribing to this theory were William S. Shepard, the 1990 Republican candidate and Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, the 2nd District congresswoman -- who might run for governor or U.S. senator or for re-election.

"It's important," says Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-Baltimore County -- another gubernatorial contender -- "for Republican statewide candidates to show we care about the counties. It's important for us to show the flag whether it translates into anything for us personally."

For state Sen. Mary Boergers, a Democrat from Montgomery County who says she wants to be governor, the convention is an essential "increment" in the building of a campaign.

Alluding to a time when the endorsement of strong political leaders guaranteed victory, no political leader can deliver his or her constituency anymore, she said, but having their support gives momentum to a candidacy.

Her former state Senate colleague, Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, worked the crowd at the convention -- and met with a group of supporters at a fund-raising lunch.

Mr. Steinberg emerged from his meal to find Mr. Neall lunching in the same bay-side restaurant with H. Furlong Baldwin, a Baltimore banker active in Maryland politics -- and a coveted financial backer. Mr. Baldwin has been helpful to both Mr. Steinberg and Mr. Neall -- but appeared to be tending in recent days toward Mr. Neall.

The conventioneers also met with Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who says he's not out of the gubernatorial fray -- but has made discreet inquires among union members about how to safeguard their endorsement should he run for re-election as attorney general.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was on hand, too, strolling through the Ocean City Convention Center on Friday morning.

"It's mainly touching base," he said. "I've spent the entire summer meeting these people. They're here talking about the future of local government -- and I want to be part of that discussion."

Just by being here he was part of the political discussion as well.

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