Ho, Ho, Ho, And Happy Politicking

COMMENT

December 26, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

I'm always late in getting my greeting cards and annual roundup out for the holiday season. My correspondents are typically hearing about our Christmas preparations long after the New Year's turkey carcass has been tossed in the landfill or the compost pile.

So it's refreshing to see that some of our Harford County officials were early in sending greetings of the season and New Year's resolutions to the electorate. At least as far as their public life is concerned.

Eileen M. Rehrmann has informed us that she has every intention of running for re-election as Harford County executive, scotching a widely discussed possibility of her joining the ticket of a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 1994.

Jeffrey D. Wilson has told everyone that he will not seek a second full term as Harford County Council president, although he will remain in politics through participation in the often controversial affairs of his local Parent Teacher Association.

Sheriff Robert E. Comes has indicated he will put himself before the voters for another four years to defend his record and fight to keep the powers of his office, which are the subject of a charter question on that same November ballot.

Like the Christmas shopping "season," the political campaigning season seems to start earlier each year. Candidates feel they have to begin running at least 18 months before the general election or face being discounted as serious contenders.

But rather than expend a media exposure opportunity prematurely, lots of politicians are signaling their intentions and then making a formal announcement at a more advantageous point in the campaign. That's the case, at least, for the major and contested offices, where a hint of intention can line up political contribution commitments as well as a flat-out declaration of candidacy can.

Mr. Wilson's public decision seems to fly in the face of that pragmatic conventional wisdom -- which should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen him defy many a convention during his four-year tenure. He usually finds some way to undercut his own policy objectives, elevating his motives and philosophy above the actual achievement of those objectives.

A new marriage, a new family of children, and the growing demands of the council president's job are his primary reasons for deciding to step aside. He owns a farm and is a minister at a Presbyterian church in York, Pa., so he has other occupational tasks as well.

Mr. Wilson emphasizes that his declaration of non-candidacy should not be cause for a political obituary. He holds out the firm possibility of running for office again, if the circumstances are right. And he's committed to a full agenda of programs for passage in the last year of this council's term.

The council's cleric believes that he and his elected colleagues are underpaid, working nearly full-time jobs for the county while receiving decidedly part-time compensation. He and two other council members sponsored a bill this year to raise the council pay, after the 1994 election, by nearly 30 percent.

The resulting uproar over that proposal caused them to shelve the bill. The low rate of pay wasn't a surprise to Mr. Wilson, who served nearly a year as appointed president before winning election in 1990. But in dropping out of a contest for re-election, Mr. Wilson is equally adamant that the council pay be raised to DTC attract and keep qualified candidates for office.

Since he spoke of his intentions last month, no one has jumped into the race for council president.

Mrs. Rehrmann's decision to stay in her Bel Air office came as the campaign for governor heated up in other counties. She was bruited about as a possible lieutenant-governor nominee on a couple of tickets, although nothing ever became public about those soundings.

It helped to push her toward an informal decision, one that she could have been expected to put off for some months, given the lack of a solid, visible contender. The decision should give the executive a stronger hand in dealing with the council over the next year, dispelling rumors that she would use the Harford office as a springboard to a state position.

Although there was no reason to think that Mr. Comes would choose to retire after a single term in the sheriff's department, the ugly controversy over his management of Harford's law enforcement and corrections agencies this year has made it a point of personal honor for him to seek vindication at the polls next year.

Mrs. Rehrmann wants control of the jail and police agency, and a proposal to create a county police force will be on the November election ballot. Other candidates are lining up to enter the sheriff's race, regardless of how voters decide on stripping police authority from the office. Should they both survive the primary, the November election will be a contest between Mr. Comes and Mrs. Rehrmann, even though they are running for separate offices.

Like New Year's resolutions, unforeseen circumstances can alter the firmest of political intentions. For opportunity is in the eye of the beholder.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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