A Candidate Who Avoids Sound Bites


August 21, 1994|By Elise Armacost

Severna Park civic activist Dan Nataf knew when he started thinking last winter about running for the House of Delegates that, if he really wanted to do this, he had better be prepared to answer questions about the issues.

So he prepared.

During winter break at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, where Mr. Nataf is an assistant professor of political science, he went to Annapolis.

"I spent as much time as I could in the legislature listening to testimony," he said. He sat through hearings on all the key legislation -- welfare reform, gun control, the budget, health care.

"I sat there hour after hour, just like the delegates do, because I didn't want to have to say, 'I'm in favor of throwing criminals in jail and throwing the key away' when I started getting those crazy questionnaires."

One of the "crazy questionnaires" he received during recent weeks came from The Sun's editorial board, which submits surveys to candidates for office as part of its endorsement process. We now have read hundreds of answers to questions on the issues. With a few exceptions, you could switch the names on these questionnaires and never know the difference. Most candidates are singing from the same song book:

Impose tougher prison sentences. Make welfare a temporary aid on the way to self-sufficiency. Decentralize our schools and give control of the classrooms back to teachers and principals. Long on slogans and short on specifics -- that, unfortunately, is the nature of most of the answers we received.

Mr. Nataf's are an exception. He has studied and thought about the issues, and it shows.

On crime, he writes:

"Violent, repeat offenders should be subject to substantial prison terms, [but] there are limits to the effectiveness of incarceration both in terms of cost and jail siting.

"I favor a multi-faceted approach which frees prison space through alternative sentencing, treatment for the chemically dependent, greater attention to skill acquisition while in jail and better monitoring of life outside jail once released. By small decreases in the recidivism rate, space can be made available and, more importantly, individuals might become productive, taxpaying citizens . . ."

On education:

"Goals should be geared to improving equal educational opportunities, but should also make public education attractive to the middle class by offering programs and a curriculum which are comparable to that obtained in better private schools. Along with better facilities and teachers this means less toleration of disruptive students will be possible.

"Parents must be induced to play an active role in the education of their children in a manner that is appropriate for the different backgrounds and socioeconomic situation of the parents. Public education has to provide a more comprehensive set of facilities to those in poor neighborhoods to help them compensate for deficiencies in their family and community settings . . ."

On welfare, Mr. Nataf generally supports the welfare reform bill sponsored by Gov. William Donald Schaefer last session with a few specific exceptions, such as the popular idea to limit the amount of time a welfare recipient has to find a job before benefits are cut off.

An arbitrary cut-off, he writes, could have "devastating results for parents and children alike. The time cap should be a goal which will be accompanied by thorough reviews to assess whether additional time is needed, whether constructive efforts have been made by the recipient to find a job, etc. . . .

"A progressive approach to welfare reform, despite costing more money in the short term, will save money in the long term."

Annapolis needs this kind of intelligent, reasonable realism.

Unfortunately, Mr. Nataf appears to be something of a long shot in the 33rd House Democratic primary, which is loaded with more talent than any other district in Anne Arundel County. Besides incumbent Marsha Perry, he faces County Councilman David G. Boschert, former school board member Patricia Huecker and several civic activists who may be better known and better financed than he.

He has never run for office before, and is operating a busy shoe leather campaign on a shoestring. He raised only about $7,000 so far, a combination of revenues from a fund-raiser, donations and his own money. Other candidates have raised more than $20,000.

"Some people plan for eons" before launching their first campaign, he says. They get involved with local party politics, start a campaign treasury, make connections with important political contacts.

"That wasn't my situation. I study politics and think I know a lot about it" -- his Ph.D. dissertation was titled, "Social Cleavages and Regime Formation in Contemporary Portugal" -- but humble neighborhood issues, not a love of party politics, got him into this.

A leader of the Greater Severna Park Council since 1988, he's running because he wants his community to have a voice in state government. Welfare reform and the budget are important, he says, but it's the parochial matters -- traffic, development -- that his neighbors care about most.

Mr. Nataf seems like a person with the intellect to handle the big issues and a heart that wouldn't forget the people who put him in office. The kind of person Annapolis needs.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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