The battle royal of 1994

May 19, 1994|By Frank A. DeFilippo

THE primary elections in Baltimore County are a test tube for Maryland's politics of the future.

The ballot will be as long as a Tolstoy novel and the issues -- as well as the politics -- are as layered as a Vidalia onion.

What happens in Baltimore County not only joins the rivalry for regional power against the suburbs around Washington. The outcome will also freeze-frame attitudes toward regionalism in the greater Baltimore metropolitan area.

Like a scene out of "Norma Rae," the 1994 primary election in Baltimore County is a protocol standoff between the lunch-bucket union halls and discount warehouses to the east and the haute middle tax-bracket zip codes from Towson to the west.

Begin with the candidates for governor. For the moment, there are three from Baltimore County -- Democrat and Lt. Gov. Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg and Republicans Rep. Helen Delich Bentley and Del. Ellen Sauerbrey.

That abundance of native candidates for governor from a single county in itself should produce a bodacious voter turnout.

Comes next the contest to succeed Republican Roger Hayden as county executive. Assuming Mr. Hayden's health will not be a consideration and he remains in the race, there are currently four Democrats eager to toppple him from office -- County Council members Melvin Mintz and Charles "Dutch" Ruppersberger, Sen. Nancy Murphy and former senator and retired District Court Judge John C. Coolahan.

For the first time since Donald P. Hutchinson ran in 1978, there's no candidate from the East End of the county. So the winning formula for west-side candidates this year is secure your base and run well in the east.

Mr. Mintz shares the Pikesville area with Mr. Steinberg, which should turn out a heavier Jewish vote than usual. Mrs. Murphy and Mr. Coolahan are from Arbutus and Halethorpe, which should crank up turnout in the west. Mrs. Murphy is popular on the east side, too.

Add to the mix the competition to succeed Ms. Bentley in Congress and out come three retiring members of the House of Delegates (as well as other candidates) in a kind of political class warfare.

There are Democrats Gerry L. Brewster against the East Side's Connie Galiazzo DeJulius of Dundalk. The GOP is represented by Del. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., another Gilman and Princeton grad, and Towson banker William J. Frank.

Finally, there's the intrigue of a hair-pulling contest between two senators who've been crammed into the same district by the reapportionment mapmakers -- Paula Hollinger and Janice Piccinini. The Hollinger-Piccinini match-up should have enormous BTC voter appeal, especially among Jewish voters who're eager to protect Ms. Hollinger.

Up and down the ballot there are swarms of candidates for the General Assembly as well as for the County Council because of the high number of vacancies and expected turnovers.

For the first time, the city and county are sharing legislative districts. The city's 42nd District is jutting out into the Pikesville area and South Baltimore's 47th District is extending west into Baltimore County.

This in itself could dramatically reshape the way county residents and lawmakers view the city and prompt closer cooperation now that the two are joined at the hip in an unnatural but symbiotic alliance.

Moreover, political power along with population is shifting away from the Baltimore area to the Washington suburbs. As Baltimore City's population continues its steady march to suburbia its voting strength shrinks along with its representation in the General Assembly.

Thus the city's lifeline is hitched inextricably to the whims of Baltimore County's elections this year.

While Baltimore County has three candidates for governor, the Washington suburbs match them candidate for candidate. The Democrats are Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening and Sen. Mary Boergers of Montgomery County. The Republican is William Shepard, also of Montgomery. Mr. Shepard has framed the regional clash bluntly: "It's our turn."

To preserve Baltimore's regional strength, it's critical that Baltimore County (as well as Baltimore City) send 'em a message by way of a knock-your-socks-off voter turnout. In the corners and crannies of power, clout is measured by the number of voters who flick levers.

By latest count, there are 365,637 registered voters in Baltimore County -- 242,720 Democrats, 98,362 Republicans and 24,555 others. But in the 1990 primary, only 29 percent of them bothered to vote.

This year, in addition to a platoon of candidates who each have a personal following, there are the abortion and gun-control issues to energize voters on the left, and crime, drugs and anti-tax issues to ignite voters on the right.

The dreaded word "regionalism" has been dormant for four years since Mr. Hayden assumed office. But like it or not, Baltimore County is rapidly becoming the population center of the region.

It's time to erase arbitrary boundary lines.

Frank A. DeFilippo is a writer in Owings Mills.

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