GOP candidates' differences are a matter of style CAMPAIGN 1994 -- U.S. SENATE

August 28, 1994|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer

When it comes to discussing major issues, the Republican primary race for U.S. Senate sometimes sounds like an echo chamber.

The three top contenders, all fiscal conservatives, support a woman's right to choose an abortion, oppose an invasion of Haiti, and think health care reform should occur slowly.

As the campaign enters its final two weeks, voters searching for con- trast might do better to look at the candidates' backgrounds to predict their performances on Capitol Hill.

Bill Brock, a millionaire heir to a candy fortune, already has served there as a representative and a senator from Tennessee. A low-key campaigner, he is running on three decades of experience inside the Beltway.

Ruthann Aron, a millionaire developer from Montgomery County, never has held elective office. The feisty businesswoman is campaigning as an outsider and attacking Mr. Brock as a career politician.

C. Ronald Franks, a one-term state delegate from the Eastern Shore, lacks the personal wealth his opponents have used to help finance their campaigns. A dentist from Grasonville, he is running a low-budget bid for government reform.

Widely regarded as the leading candidates, the three are vying to take on 18-year incumbent Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who faces nominal opposition in the Democratic primary. The field of Republicans includes several little-known candidates and a perennial one, retired Baltimore surgeon Ross Z. Pierpont.

Joyce Terhes, chairwoman of the Maryland Republican Party, says the race will turn on who can target the best message to voters and who has the resources to bring them out on election day, Sept. 13.

"Where you have people who are similar in their views on the issues, the style then becomes a very important distinguishing characteristic," she said.

Ms. Aron, 51, is a political newcomer whose public service is limited to the past two years as a member of the Montgomery County Planning Board. Current and former colleagues rate her job performance from "adequate" to "very good" and "outstanding." Former chairman Gus Bauman recalled her as competent, well-prepared and a quick study.

On the stump, Ms. Aron has emphasized her experience as a businesswoman, including nine years as a real estate developer. In a pair of lawsuits, though, former business partners have questioned her honesty.

In 1984, two financiers charged that she had sold an interest in a Rockville shopping center for $200,000 without splitting the profits as they had agreed. Ms. Aron said they had not helped to finance the project as promised.

A Montgomery County jury found her liable for breach of contract and fraud and awarded the plaintiffs $246,606 in damages. Ms. Aron appealed the verdict, then settled the case for about $150,000, she said. The verdict against her was vacated.

In 1990, the trustee of a bankrupt finance company sued Ms. Aron after she sold a 17.5-acre property for a profit of $700,000. The company's trustee said it deserved a portion.

Ms. Aron again argued that the company hadn't provided the financing it had promised. The jury found against her and a co-defendant and awarded the plaintiff $910,000.

A settlement

The judge set aside the verdict, saying he distrusted testimony by the company's president. Ms. Aron said she settled the suit for $175,000 to avoid another trial.

Ms. Aron said the real estate business is notoriously litigious and noted that a settlement is not an admission of fault. She also suggested that sexism may have played a role in the suits, but refused to elaborate.

"As a woman alone in this business, I had to fight for everything I wanted to keep," Ms. Aron said. "I'm not happy that I was involved in business disputes, but I'm also not ashamed of it."

Some of Ms. Aron's partners say they have had much better experiences with her. Former partner Rick Band described her as a good, honest businesswoman, but a challenge to work with because of her confrontational style.

"Working with her is just exhausting, demanding," he said.

Confrontation has also been a frequent tactic in her political campaign. She has, for instance, repeatedly attacked Mr. Brock as a carpetbagger because he has lived in the state full time only since 1990. A couple of weeks ago, she went to his headquarters to challenge him to a televised debate. Mr. Brock, as she already knew, was raising funds in Tennessee.

"Maybe that's where he should be running from," she said as a television camera rolled.

Mr. Brock has refused to take the bait and has pledged not to counter-attack.

While the two candidates have similar views on issues, they depart on a key theme of her campaign -- term limits. Ms. Aron favors them. Mr. Brock, who served in Congress from 1963 to 1977, does not. Instead, he recommends eliminating political action committees to open the campaign process.

Ms. Aron's position on term limits is partly aimed at Mr. Brock, who has spent much of his adult life building an impressive career in national politics.

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