Her critics make various complaints about Ellen R...

September 02, 1994|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Sun Staff Writer

Her critics make various complaints about Ellen R. Sauerbrey, but no one has ever accused her of lacking conviction.

During 16 years in the Maryland House of Delegates, Mrs. Sauerbrey has delivered a consistent message of the need to shrink government, cut taxes and get tough on crime -- a dissenting voice that rarely succeeded amid the Democratic majority, or even with moderate Republicans.

But the House minority leader thinks Maryland is changing, is ready for a fresh, conservative wind to blow through Annapolis. And she believes the state is ready for her as its governor.

"As I look at Maryland today and see what are the concerns that people have, it seems to me that the body politic has moved in my direction," Mrs. Sauerbrey said last week.

The Baltimore County legislator is running second in the three-way Sept. 13 Republican primary for governor, behind Helen Delich Bentley, the 2nd District congresswoman favored to win.

But Mrs. Sauerbrey's steady, hard work on the stump over the last 15 months seems to be paying off.

She jumped within striking distance of Mrs. Bentley in a poll released this week, nearly doubling her standing of just a month ago.

Mrs. Sauerbrey displays a solid understanding of state government that is a strong point of her campaign.

She delivered a crisp, impressive performance in Monday night's televised debate, using it to showcase her command of state issues.

She is a prim, but vocal, 56-year-old former high school science teacher who has never walked away from a fight in the House. Her tenacity has earned her points with GOP colleagues, but makes her an annoying ideologue to many Democrats.

Mrs. Bentley -- who leads Mrs. Sauerbrey 44 percent to 27 percent in this week's poll -- looms large on her horizon.

Although there is a third Republican candidate -- William S. Shepard, a retired foreign service from Montgomery County who was the party's 1990 nominee -- Mrs. Bentley is the one to beat.

The congresswoman is viewed by many Republicans as providing their party with its best shot at capturing the State House in 28 years because of her wide name recognition, proven fund-raising ability and her perceived "electability" in November -- so important to the GOP in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2 to 1.

Mrs. Bentley, waging a classic front-runner campaign, has been staying out of sight and away from most issues.

That strategy left Mrs. Sauerbrey with little choice but to attack -- a tactic that caused a little squirming among party regulars unaccustomed to contested primaries.

In speeches and in press conferences, she criticized Mrs. Bentley, claiming that the congresswoman consistently voted against "the Republican agenda" and was a favorite of organized labor, and that her "flip-flops and misrepresentations" would cost the GOP the governor's race if she were its nominee.

Mrs. Sauerbrey also has hammered Mrs. Bentley for her relationship with Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who encouraged the congresswoman to run for the State House.

Hard-hitting radio spot

Most recently, Mrs. Sauerbrey weighed in with an on-air broadside -- a 60-second radio spot using sound-alikes of Mrs. Bentley and Mr. Schaefer complaining about Mrs. Sauerbrey's proposal to cut income taxes.

Mrs. Bentley has declined to respond to the charges.

But some Republicans worry privately that by hammering the congresswoman, Mrs. Sauerbrey is hurting the party's chances in a general election race they believe will be waged by Mrs. Bentley. Mrs. Sauerbrey strongly disagrees.

"I don't believe that, because I don't think Helen's electable," Mrs. Sauerbrey said.

"I also believe that Republicans are becoming mature in the state and believe we can behave like the Democrats always have behaved -- fight it out in the primary."

While much of the campaign's energy and money has been spent attempting to deflate Mrs. Bentley's candidacy, Mrs. Sauerbrey has continued to highlight the issues.

The centerpiece of her campaign is an overhaul of the tax system. She has promised to cut personal income taxes by 24 percent over four years -- 6 percent in the first year -- while also addressing the multimillion-dollar budget shortfall facing the state.

Under her tax plan, she says, a family of four earning $30,000 and taking the standard deduction would save as much as $220 the first year.

Such a dramatic and ambitious program could require cuts, in the first year alone, of nearly $500 million from the state's projected $7 billion general fund budget.

Mrs. Sauerbrey says it can be done by cutting state government across the board.

But her fiscal plan, formulated by a kitchen cabinet of financial experts and academics, has been widely criticized by other candidates and state budget officials as being drastic and impractical.

While fiscal matters are her campaign's main selling point, she also touches a chord a little closer to voters with her proposals for getting tough on crime.

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