Shepard runs as diplomat in scuffle for State House

December 27, 1993|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

All but ignored after leading the Maryland Republican Party to its strongest gubernatorial election effort in a generation, William Seth Shepard is running again and finding parallels for his struggle in nature.

Even as Mr. Shepard urged supporters to help him "Finish the Job in '94," a white pine in his front yard in Potomac suffered blight at the top.

"I would have taken the dead branch away, but I couldn't get to it. It's surrounded by poison ivy to which I am deathly allergic. So I just watched it. I thought the whole tree would die, but that hasn't happened.

"Another top branch came along, took over -- and took off," he says. He calls the new growth "a leadership branch."

"Darned if I don't see a corking good analogy to what's going on with my state party," says the former foreign service officer who turned to politics after his retirement.

The parallel he sees is this: the matriarch of Maryland's GOP, 70-year-old Helen Delich Bentley, has entered the race for her party's 1994 nomination, bidding to shove him aside.

Also running is Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey of Baltimore County, the House of Delegates' minority leader, who outpaced him in the party's earliest straw poll.

When he speaks of a leadership blight, Mr. Shepard, 58, is speaking primarily of Mrs. Bentley, with whom he has had a testy political relationship. When he speaks of a takeover, he is speaking of himself.

But some in the party say he should have recognized that, grateful or not, an increasingly strong GOP might turn to candidates such as Mrs. Sauerbrey and Mrs. Bentley who have longer records of party service and more electoral successes. Mr. Shepard was in Vietnam or Budapest as a foreign service officer during the years his opponents were progressing in Maryland politics.

"It's just a different year and a different time," said Del. Jean Roesser a Montgomery County Republican.

Moderate Republican

But it could be the right time, according to Mr. Shepard's Baltimore campaign manager, Samuel A. Culotta, who says that his party should see Mr. Shepard as the sort of moderate Republican Marylanders have warmed to in the past.

Mr. Culotta sees him as a Republican in the tradition of the late Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, a two-term mayor of Baltimore and a two-term governor, and Mr. Culotta's own personal political hero.

"Bill Shepard is a thoughtful man," Mr. Culotta says, suggesting that the other two GOP candidates do not measure up in that regard. "He's good on city issues and he wants to help us with education funding, which is Baltimore's only hope."

And Mr. Culotta is one of those who says the GOP owes something to its 1990 nominee.

The party chairman, Joyce Lyons Terhes, says that Shepard loyalists do remain. She will take no position in the primary, but she hears from others in the GOP who think that Mr. Shepard does deserve continuing support.

"They have not jumped ship and will not jump ship during the primary," she said. She gives him credit. While other candidates took months to make up their minds, Mr. Shepard "never stopped campaigning after 1990."

Dr. Mark R. Frazer of Huntingtown, a former Calvert County commissioner, says that Mr. Shepard is well positioned. If Mrs. Bentley and Ms. Sauerbrey split the women's vote, Mr. Shepard has enough support to regain the nomination, Dr. Frazer says.

In terms of fund raising, Mr. Shepard will offer himself as something of a reformer.

After many years of delay, the 1994 gubernatorial election will feature an experiment in public financing. The $2.7 million comes from Marylanders who checked a box on their tax returns, contributing $1.

So far, Mr. Shepard is the only GOP candidate who says he will definitely participate. Mrs. Bentley is expected to raise and spend millions more than she could get from the public source. Ms. Sauerbrey has left open the possibility she might participate in the public program.

Under the rules, a candidate may not accept individual contributions of more than $250. Those who reach the $142,000 qualifying threshold will get the same amount in matching funds from the state for the primary and about $900,000 for the general election. They are barred from raising any money themselves for the general election.

Mr. Shepard hopes he can capture the moral high ground on the issue of money in politics, but his opponents may point out that he raised only $119,285 in 1990. If he qualifies for the public money, he will have a far healthier campaign account than he might have had otherwise, based on his record.

He is also running as the most reasonable candidate. He says his diplomatic experience equips him well to be a conciliator in the State House, reaching across party lines in a way that will be increasingly necessary if the state is to prosper, particularly at a time when Republicans are inching toward influence in the General Assembly.

What would Mrs. Bentley bring to the State House?

He asks the question and then quickly answers it:

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