Would You Believe the Year of the Insider?

May 15, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Four years ago, Maryland's voters were -- to borrow an expression from the movie ''Network'' -- mad as hell and unwilling to take it any longer. They threw the bums out, literally. It was the Year of the Outsider.

The same kind of upheaval was happening throughout the country. People were fed up with incumbents and the failures of government. This attitude helped lead to the Year of the Woman in 1992, when female candidates made record gains in federal elections.

Will these trends persist into 1994 in Maryland? Numerous candidates are banking their election prospects on the answer being ''yes.'' But results from other states in recent weeks show that the answer could well be ''no.'' This could be the Year of the Insider.

Look at last week's Pennsylvania primary election. Every candidate who ran an anti-government, throw-the-rascals-out campaign lost. It wasn't even close.

Lynn Yeakel, the anti-incumbency candidate who had made such a big splash two years ago, had been expected to win the Democratic nomination for governor over the state's lieutenant governor, Mark Singel. After all, she buried him in 1992 when she came out of nowhere to win the U.S. Senate nomination, bashing Singel as a career politician.

Look what happened this time. The voters opted for experience over rhetoric. Ms. Yeakel didn't merely lose, she was humiliated, finishing fourth in a field of six. Mr. Singel's service in Harrisburg turned out to be a key advantage this time.

Penn State political scientist Michael Young assessed the results this way: ''All the early indications are that it's a year in which incumbency, and insider status, and competency and experience are selling messages to the voters.''

That should be a decided plus for Maryland's lieutenant governor, Melvin A. Steinberg, and for Parris Glendening, the three-term Prince George's County executive. Other gubernatorial contenders are trying to position themselves as relative outsiders and anti-government crusaders. That could be deeply flawed reading of the mood of the electorate.

Earlier this month, another state election displayed similar trends. In Ohio, the outsider candidates and the female candidates went down to defeat. Bland but competent Republican Lt. Gov. Michael DeWine surprised everyone with his landslide victory. He is now the early favorite to win that state's Senate seat in November; popular incumbent Gov. George Voinovich seems a shoo-in for a second term in Columbus.

The one Ohio outsider who still has a shot at winning is Joel Hyatt, the legal-services entrepreneur and son-in-law of retiring Sen. Howard Metzenbaum. But he barely squeaked by in the primary. Now he must fend off attacks that he is a political neophyte trying to buy the election.

That's the same kind of problem Stewart Bainum Jr. will have in Maryland after he announces his gubernatorial ambitions tomorrow. A million-dollar spring media blitz by the millionaire Mr. Bainum will only deepen suspicions that he thinks he can buy the governorship with dollars -- and with a decidedly anti-government, pro-business, I'm-an-outsider theme.

Such an approach didn't work in Ohio or Pennsylvania. Moreover, many candidates in the governor's race here are already expressing the same sentiments Mr. Bainum wants to stress. He'll have great difficulty distinguishing himself from the rest of the field.

(Further hurting Mr. Bainum's chances is his lack of a broad political base. He's been away from politics for eight years and can't even claim his home county of Montgomery as his own. That became clear last week when Mr. Glendening picked up the backing of Montgomery County Executive Neal Potter and a number of county legislators. Montgomery Sen. Mary Boergers also hurts Mr. Bainum in their home county, as does Mr. Steinberg's support there among his political allies.)

The Ohio and Pennsylvania elections illustrate the shifting mood of this country's electorate. Four years ago, people were disgusted. Two years ago, they were still angry. Now they're not. This time, they want competence, not confrontation.

Part of this sudden shift flows from a change in attitude among elected officials. It's no accident that every major candidate for governor is stressing downsizing government, trimming spending and ''reinventing'' the way Annapolis goes about its job. Candidates were shaken by the political earthquake of four years ago. They've listened to what voters were saying.

Even more important, the economic climate has brightened. We're out of the recession, finally. New jobs are being created in the workplace. Most layoffs have stopped. Things are looking up. And the outlook of this nation is decidedly more optimistic.

In such an uplifting atmosphere, the anti-government, anti-incumbent candidate can't make much headway. Sure, voters want to see waste and inefficiencies eliminated, but there a growing consensus that the ones best suited to this task are those with hands-on experience. In other words, the insiders.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.

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