Front-runners take fire in debate CAMPAIGN 1994 -- THE RACE FOR GOVERNOR

August 30, 1994|By Robert Timberg and John W. Frece | Robert Timberg and John W. Frece,Sun Staff Writers

Maryland's seven major candidates for governor, Democrats and Republicans alike, squared off last night in the only statewide prime-time televised debate of the campaign, showcasing their platforms and taking swipes at the two front-runners.

"Do you want true change or a different shade of Schaefer?" asked Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a pointed reference to the GOP leader in the polls, U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who had been encouraged to run by the incumbent Democratic governor, William Donald Schaefer.

The Democratic front-runner, Parris N. Glendening, was the target of charges from his three opponents -- Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg and state Sens. American Joe Miedusiewski of Baltimore and Mary H. Boergers of Montgomery County -- that he has made promises he will be unable to redeem in light of anticipated state budget shortfalls.

Mrs. Bentley, as if assuming a general election battle against Mr. Glendening, the Prince George's County executive, joined in the attack in her closing remarks, saying, as she looked toward him, "If this debate were about making promises, there would be a clear winner."

The five-term Baltimore County congresswoman sent a murmur through the audience when she glared into the camera, as if talking to a violent criminal, and said, "I will catch you, I will incarcerate you and, if need be, I will have you put to death."

Mr. Glendening reminded viewers of his executive experience, 12 years at the helm of a major urban county, and urged them to beware of intensified negative radio and TV advertising directed at him in the final two weeks before the Sept. 13 party primaries.

He also returned fire at Mrs. Bentley, questioning how she could make such passionate anti-crime remarks after voting against President Clinton's crime bill last week. "That is just not being truthful with Maryland citizens," he said.

None of the candidates appeared to make a major mistake, and the debate itself proved to be what Dr. William E. Kirwan, president of the University of Maryland College Park, had called for in welcoming the candidates -- "a lively and provocative" exchange on the issues.

All the aspirants used the occasion to sound themes that they have promoted throughout the campaign, but last night presented them with perhaps the single largest audience they will command before the voters have their say.

Mrs. Sauerbrey, the Republican leader of the Maryland House, and Mr. Miedusiewski, a 20-year veteran of the state legislature, seemed especially crisp in their deliveries and at ease before the cameras.

Mrs. Sauerbrey made the only obvious news of the night, saying that, if elected, she would not take her $120,000 gubernatorial salary next year if she is unable to find money in the budget to fund the first 6 percent installment on her promised four-year, 24 percent state income tax cut for individuals.

"There are so many skeptics who say that it can't be done," she said after the debate. "But I made the pledge and intend to keep it."

The 90-minute forum originated at the University of Maryland College Park campus and was televised by Maryland Public Television stations. It was jointly sponsored by UM's School of Public Affairs, MPT and the League of Women Voters of Maryland.

Debate rules established by the sponsors limited participation to candidates who had received support from at least 5 percent of the respondents in a nonpartisan statewide public opinion poll.

Democrat Lawrence K. Freeman, a follower of political extremist Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr., protested his exclusion, accusing the League in a prepared statement of "violating the process of fair and honest elections by attempting to censor" his campaign.

Sponsors used last month's Maryland Poll, conducted by Mason-Dixon Political Media Research of Columbia, for The Sun and other news organizations, to establish eligibility, said Patty Pollard, League president. In that poll, Mr. Freeman received no support.

Mr. Steinberg, in his remarks, asserted that the most serious issue facing the state was the structural deficit, which has been projected at $160 million next year and $300 million in succeeding years through 1999, and said his long experience in state government makes him most qualified to deal with it.

"Unless we come to grips with the structural deficit," he said, "everything will go for naught."

Ms. Boergers, as she has throughout the campaign, portrayed herself as a knowledgeable underdog who would bring "a new type of leadership" to the state. "I speak my mind and I don't make deals," she said.

William S. Shepard, the third Republican and the party's 1990 standard-bearer, sounded a moderate theme throughout, saying that as governor he could work with a Democratic legislature and calling for innovative solutions to the crime problem that went beyond building more prisons.

He also pledged to create crime strike forces to deal with the drug-trafficking and organized crime, which he said was making inroads in Maryland.

Mr. Miedusiewski, in his closing remarks, accused Mr. Glendening of offending the state's small business owners, an apparent reference to his statement that he had presided over an entire county while his opponents had never supervised more than four people.

After the debate, most of the candidates seemed pleased with their performances.

"I think the most memorable thing about this debate is that Mrs. Bentley came," said Mrs. Sauerbrey, who, along with Mr. Shepard, has complained repeatedly that Mrs. Bentley has skipped previous debates and forums.

Mr. Steinberg expressed frustration with trying to explain complex tax, budget, health care or crime issues in a structured debate's allotted 45 seconds.

But he said he thought voters probably got "the essence of the campaigns" from the opening and closing statements.

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