Neall's Gift to the GOP

PETER A. JAY

October 21, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace.--Those who have difficulty telling right from wrong are often drawn to political careers, for the practical reason that in politics there is no wrong. Fortunately, however, politics also attracts a few admirable people whose moral circuitry remains functional.

Anne Arundel County Executive Robert Neall, who has just decided to leave politics behind when his term ends next year, clearly belongs in the latter category. When forced to choose between a political career and what he concluded were the best interests of his family, he made the honorable choice. It was entirely in character.

Mr. Neall had been widely considered the front-runner for the Republican nomination for governor of Maryland. Had he chosen instead to seek re-election in Anne Arundel County, he could have had a second term as county executive without facing a serious challenge.

His decision to turn away from these attractive opportunities saddened some of his friends. But, paradoxically, it also demonstrated the sound moral sensibility that contributed to his political appeal. This is a man who really can tell right from wrong, and act on that distinction. Maryland public life will miss Mr. Neall.

And so, next fall, will the Democratic nominee for governor. For though he was liked and respected, as a statewide candidate Mr. Neall would have been dead meat. The prospects for Maryland Republicans are much brighter without him heading their ticket.

Like Robert Pascal, the last Republican county executive from Anne Arundel, Mr. Neall is especially popular among Democrats. Democratic politicians see him, despite the party label, as essentially one of them. Not only is he personally amiable, but his public rhetoric is non-threatening and his philosophy of government is as reassuringly fuzzy as their own.

At the county level, this sort of popularity is undeniably helpful. Local officials usually win elections because of their personal appeal. Most voters know them, or know someone who knows them. But in a statewide election, the personal is much less important. The message matters, and especially for Republicans, it had better be a message with an edge.

Not everyone agrees with that, of course. Editorially, The Sun was enthusiastic about Mr. Neall, as it usually is about Republicans who sound like Democrats. It now counsels the Republicans to find a ''pragmatic'' replacement for him who also stands for nothing in particular. Democrats had better hope they take that advice. In Maryland, when a faceless Republican runs against a faceless Democrat, the Democrat always wins. Thus, boredom is always the Democrat's friend, and because a contest between Mr. Neall and any of the currently announced Democratic candidates for governor would have been about as exciting as a porridge vs. oatmeal taste test, most Democratic professionals would have welcomed it.

With Mr. Neall out of the way, the identity of the likely Republican nominee for governor still isn't clear. Del. Ellen Sauerbrey, the minority leader in the House of Delegates, and William Shepard, the nominee in 1990, are campaigning hard. Meanwhile, Representative Helen Bentley continues to do the dance of the seven veils. Will she run for governor? Will she run against U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes? Either the lady has a flair for the dramatic, or she just can't make up her mind.

Probably Mrs. Bentley can have either nomination if she wants it badly enough, although from the party's standpoint it would make more sense for her to run for the Senate. Her long Washington experience makes her by far the strongest Republican candidate available to challenge Mr. Sarbanes, and her campaign would surely not be bland. Porridge she's not. Besides, it's intriguing to imagine her in the Senate with Barbara Mikulski.

But there is nothing in the Bentley resume to suggest a special fitness to be governor. Like her friend William Donald Schaefer, whose last year in the job is about to begin, she's irascible and outrageous, and she loves the city of Baltimore. But she hasn't his background in local government. Even if she did, 1994 won't be a good year to run as a Schaefer clone.

If the Republicans are to recover the governorship in 1994 for the first time in 25 years, they won't need a miracle. But they'll need a platform that doesn't sound like the usual mush, and they'll need some breaks.

These might include a spirited but not unduly divisive primary between Mr. Shepard and Mrs. Sauerbrey; a horrendous struggle for the nomination between the Democrats; a vigorous challenge of Senator Sarbanes by Mrs. Bentley; and, by the Democrats currently calling the shots in Annapolis and Washington, a fumble or two of the sort that sets the talk shows a-buzzing.

If a few of these not-implausible events come to pass, and if the Republicans don't come down with a case of the ''pragmatic'' blahs, some startling things could happen. In early 1995 Robert Neall, private citizen, just might get an invitation to lunch with the new Republican governor, who would then thank him for making it all possible.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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