Could This Be the Election at Last When Lieutenant Governors Matter?

August 21, 1994|By C. FRASER SMITH

Will 1994 be the year of the lieutenant governor? Will candidates for that exalted obscurity help Marylanders decide how to vote in the race for governor?

The case for such a breakthrough is straightforward:

At the start of the race, candidates for governor were little known outside their home turf. They were seen as one-dimensional characters who might gain luster from just the right partner, someone with a bit of star quality, a geographic base, a useful legislative skill or some other distinguishing quality.

This year's contenders, therefore, would test the view that candidates for lieutenant governor can hurt but never help. That theory amounts to a dismal lowering of expectations even for politics. And, indeed, lieutenant governors in Maryland have almost always been much better timber than we should expect, given all the ridicule that has been heaped upon the office.

A seasoned political hand in Maryland, given to humorous cynicism, says running for lieutenant governor should be viewed as going into the witness protection program.

Under siege from some quarter? Bored? Dead-ended? Run for lieutenant governor! It's a wonderful place to hide. You get a new identity, a nice office in a new location and $100,000 annual salary.

Never mind that some believe the office is unnecessary and should be abolished.

Since it is there, critics invest it with a curiously contradictory character: First they say the choice is irrelevant in a campaign, important only because a successor must be available should the governor die or go to jail.

After the candidates for governor make their choices, though, the pundits begin searching for clues to the gubernatorial candidate's judgment. Has he or she been politically naive or calculating, or has he tilted himself too far ideologically? The choice suddenly begins to carry proof of the candidate's fitness.

Having poisoned the atmosphere election after election, the critics then wonder why the talent pool dries up and proceed to hammer the gubernatorial candidates for choosing poorly.

What seems striking is the quality of the choices made by candidates in both parties. Keep in mind, too, that many of these selections were no better than a second choice.

Nevertheless, the candidates were examined by the critics as if they had been the first preference, the embodiment of the gubernatorial candidate's ideal partner and potential successor.

Republican Helen Delich Bentley was the clear winner of this year's second-guessing sweepstakes. Her choice of state Sen. Howard A. Denis has been called a masterstroke. One might say that it was Mr. Denis who delivered the stroke, since he has put his intellect and high principle at the service of Mrs. Bentley.

Was it the incredible lightness of being a Maryland Republican, toiling for so long in the shadow of a Democratic Senate majority, that drove the Montgomery Countian to such risk-taking? For the insider, at least, Mr. Denis set himself apart from career politicians who would always prefer the sure thing.

He has now given up a job he cherished (as did Mrs. Bentley) to help his party win the Governor's Mansion, always a difficult chore for the GOP in Maryland, where there are still two registered Democrats for every Republican.

Which brings us to Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening, widely said to be the loser of this year's Meaningless Choice Derby. Mr. Glendening's running mate is Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a Baltimore County Democrat without a political victory to augment her famous pedigree.

She was called a disappointing choice because, as a Kennedy, she seemed a more liberal contender than Mr. Glendening could afford in a year when even Maryland might be trending toward the conservative.

But was the liberal tilt such a big liability? Just how conservative will Maryland be this year? Less so than the nation, probably. Will the preponderance of votes come from "liberal" or "conservative" sections of the state? Liberal, probably.

Mrs. Townsend will be an energetic presence on the Glendening team, a person whose smile evokes at least a generation of national glory and pain. If Mr. Glendening is "Parris who?" Mrs. Townsend is a member of the nation's first family. She could help him cement the black, moderate and liberal vote he must have to win.

She may appeal to female voters and baby boomers as well, cadres anxious to see themselves reflected on the electoral stage. Congresswoman Bentley likes to say she is one of the few candidates in the country to have defeated a Kennedy. She beat Mrs. Townsend in a race for Congress in 1986, but that was eight years ago. Now, simply by being there, Mrs. Townsend may remind the voters that Mrs. Bentley, low-key and almost hidden from view so far, is 70.

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