Thinking About Candidates

July 30, 1994|By ANDREW RATNER

A friend once told me his biggest beef about The Sun was its political endorsements -- not the content, merely the fact that the newspaper published them at all. Is the paper so arrogant it doesn't think voters can make up their own minds, he wanted to know.

I can't recall how I steered him off the subject -- ''How 'bout dem O's?'' perhaps -- but I've thought a lot about his comment, especially in the past month as the editorial staff has sent out 750 letters seeking information from candidates running for Maryland offices this fall, from the governor's race to Congress to school-board seats.

The Baltimore Sun actually will be running more political endorsements than ever -- in the coming six weeks prior to the September 13 primary, and then in the weeks preceding the general election November 8.

Because of the zoned editions initiated in Anne Arundel, Carroll and Howard counties two years ago, and because of revamped staffing in the city and Baltimore and Harford counties, the editorial page is able to devote more effort and space to local political coverage. Also, with editorial writers now based both downtown and in the suburbs, they've been able to follow the issues more closely. By mid-August, The Sun and The Evening Sun will run up to four endorsements a day, zoned for different geographic areas.

The purpose of our editorial endorsements isn't to ''pick winners,'' or to dictate whom voters should choose. There's no orchestrated subterfuge with the news department, which is not privy to the endorsements beforehand and whose columnists have criticized in print the paper's endorsements in the past. Neither is the selection distilled from some formula of ''right'' answers the candidates must give.

If this process sounds nebulous, it is. Editorial endorsements are essentially the product of a group of journalists who partly make their living doing something many people increasingly would rather not -- thinking about public office and the people who aspire to it.

Endorsements are the political equivalent of the newspaper's movie, book or restaurant reviews. The movie reviewer isn't telling you how you should feel about a movie, just how he felt about it. You read his review and decide to see or not to see the film, or to see it in spite of the piece. And if you've read the particular reviewer over time, you might assume you know what he thinks even before you've read the review -- and then read it anyway.

Regular readers of the editorial page also probably have a feel for the page's political leanings: We're somewhat conservative on economic matters, somewhat liberal on social ones. The newspaper has made endorsements that don't fit that mold, too: It endorsed Helen Bentley when she first sought to unseat the more liberal incumbent congressman, Clarence Long.

Some candidates have been immensely aided by the paper's support -- the election of underdog Harry Hughes as governor in 1978 following an early Sun endorsement is often cited as a notable example. But plenty have won without it, too. Several who received it probably shouldn't have: Some editorial staffers are still smarting over the fact that the day they endorsed then-Del. Larry Young for Baltimore City Council president in 1987, it was revealed that he'd fudged his resume. Still other candidates could care less: Rep. Steny Hoyer, comfortably cruising in his own re-election bid two years ago, beseeched the edit board in 1992 that if it had but one endorsement to give it should go not to him, but to Tom McMillen, his struggling colleague in another district. (We didn't agree.)

The Sun stopped endorsing in presidential elections a decade ago for reasons internal -- philosophical differences between the publisher and editorial editor -- and external -- readers have stronger feelings about their presidential leanings. On races at the state and local levels, however, voters have a greater need for information. That's as true now as ever with citizens &r increasingly discouraged by and distancing themselves from politics.

Admittedly, endorsing candidates is a wholly subjective exercise. Based on research, resumes, records and a bit of gut feeling, we back the candidates we think could perform the task the best. We're not imploring people to think the way we think. Rather, the best result we could achieve is if a political endorsement gets voters to think for themselves about the coming elections.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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