Sorting through the Candidates

August 06, 1994|By PATRICK ERCOLANO

One political candidate mailed in a bar of soap as a symbol of his dedication to ''fresh, clean government.'' He also sent a pack of matches, the significance of which wasn't made clear. Fiery determination maybe? A feel for the hot issues? A desire to blaze a path through a crowded field of office-seekers?

Then there were the two candidates who, independently of each other, possessed the wackiness or just poor judgment to present their literature in the style of a ''wanted'' poster. As in, ''Wanted! For the House of Delegates! Mike Muldoon!,'' complete with smiling mug shot. These should go over big, given the voting public's crime jitters.

I also got a kick out of the candidate who advocated ''resources conservation'' in a 19-page, plastic-encased packet that had separate title pages for each of the several issues he addressed. A true conservation nut would have condensed the whole deal into five or six pages. And on recycled paper.

For the past month, I've received and read roughly 200 such communications -- mailed, faxed, hand- delivered -- from Baltimore County candidates for political offices ranging from Congress to the local Orphans' Court. You could say my editorial department colleagues and I asked for it. In planning and writing The Sun's election endorsements over the years, the department has routinely sent a form letter to candidates asking them to explain their stands on topical matters.

The twist this time is that the editorial staff expansion of two years ago will enable us to pay closer attention to more races, especially in the suburban jurisdictions of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties. More than 700 form letters went out to office-seekers in Baltimore and the five surrounding counties.

Being new to the endorsement game, I wasn't sure what to expect when the letters went out to the folks on my turf, Baltimore County. I dreaded an avalanche of mail and initially hoped the replies would be short and sweet, the better to handle the volume of replies.

Sure enough, the avalanche ensued. Unexpectedly, though, I've come to value the thorough responses far more than the one-page kiss-offs some candidates have returned. The longer letters tend to supply more of the information I need, while the shorter ones leave me frustrated and suspicious of the senders. Slick literature does not a statesperson make. But I'm finding that thoughtful, well-organized material is a sign of a good campaign, which is a sign of a good candidate.

I like to think decent writing skills, too, indicate a capable contender. Maybe it's the old parochial-school kid in me, but I couldn't help cringing over the misspellings and grammatical flubs that marred too many of the replies, including those from incumbents. One common butchery was the misspelling of the possessive ''its'' as ''it's.'' It's its, gang! People who are sloppy about expressing themselves, especially when trolling for newspaper endorsements, don't fill me with a lot of confidence in their potential as the drafters of our laws.

The letters are only one element of our research. We also interview some candidates, in person and on the phone; chat with reporters, party veterans and other observers of local politics; attend candidate forums; read pertinent news clippings; and more. The editorial-board members digest all this information and ultimately pick the people we consider best suited to hold public office. An exact science? No. It's more like picking the ponies. But the process is done in good faith and with an honest, painstaking effort to find the men and women we view as the most qualified.

The candidates' letters have been a big help in the process. They can't be taken entirely at face value, of course, their authors being of their particular chosen field. Yet despite some sloganeering and the odd Neanderthalic viewpoint, I was largely impressed with the responses. For example, there was a heartening level of support stated for Baltimore as the heart of the region.

There was also some good reportage by the candidates, who learned much about their districts by walking through them, knocking on doors, talking to people in their homes or at VFW halls. According to the candidates, Baltimore County voters seem most concerned about overcrowded public schools, haphazard development and crime.

I learned some things as well, thanks to the letters. It's almost enough to give me a ''fresh, clean'' outlook on politicians.

Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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