The Cuckoo-Clock Candidate, and Other Chuckles

September 11, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- It's been on the whole a hilarious campaign, and so there's a tremendous temptation to dismiss Tuesday's Maryland primary elections as comic.

Comedy has been a dominant theme since the campaigning began. The early pratfalls of Mickey Steinberg, the heroic and unexpected rise of the incomprehensible populist publican American Joe, the choleric rumblings of William Donald Schaefer as each day drags him closer to the great lame-duck void -- all these have been wackily amusing.

Even the hopelessly humorless gubernatorial front-runners, Helen Bentley and Parris Glendening, have been inadvertently funny too, to just about everyone's amazement and perhaps relief. Reporters covering them can't believe their luck.

Mr. Glendening, who has spent his working life in large organizations and shows it, uncannily evokes the new comic-strip hero Dilbert -- an amiable mid-level nonentity with ball-point pens in his shirt-pocket. Mrs. Bentley has campaigned like the bird in a cuckoo clock, remaining invisible most of the time but bursting out unexpectedly from time to time to say something lurid.

The other major Democrat, Mary Boergers, and the other major Republicans, William Shepard and Ellen Sauerbrey, have run what have been to all appearances diligent and issue-oriented campaigns. But they haven't been funny, and it's far from clear that what with all the entertainment going on elsewhere, many Marylanders have been paying attention to them.

The U.S. Senate campaign hasn't been as good theater as the gubernatorial show, no doubt because Sen. Paul Sarbanes is to funny what a fire extinguisher is to a match, but the Republican primary has had its moments.

The fugitive from Tennessee, Bill Brock, is the putative leader at this point in the race for the nomination, even though he may be the only resident of the state of Maryland who can make Paul Sarbanes look exciting by contrast. A Brock-Sarbanes contest in the general election may bring about statewide narcolepsy.

But developer Ruthann Aron, who at least in her advertising comes across as Daddy Warbucks recast for the '90s, and the gunslinging dentist Ronald Franks from the Eastern Shore have kept things interesting enough in the primary so that at times it was hard to remember that that indefatigable old eccentric Ross Z. Pierpont was in the race, too.

Dr. Franks' in-your-face giveaway of a semi-automatic weapon to a lucky campaign contributor was the gimmick of the season, and the chorus of shocked clucking it touched off, even in his own party, must have made his outsider's campaign seem at least briefly worthwhile.

Oddly, the political advertising, which usually does so much to set the tone of a campaign, has been only sporadically comic this summer. The ads registering on my screen seemed to

alternate mostly between the nasty and the nostalgic. Old tunes were more popular than ever, some of them well done (''Hey, Hey Paula'' promoting state Sen. Paula Hollinger) and some atrocious (''That's Why American Joe is a Champ'').

But while song-and-dance routines and accidental comedy make campaigns more bearable, the humor quickly fades, leaving grim reality. The results of Tuesday's election will do much to determine what kind of a state government we'll have in the next four years. That won't be a laughing matter.

Some of the implications of this year's elections are already clear, and for many of us they're not good news. Not only is non-metropolitan Maryland less of a factor than ever in the past, but the state's Washington suburbs grow ever more significant. Rural areas of the state, which not too long ago were complaining about the dominance of Baltimore, may find the dominance of this new power center even less congenial.

Probably, after the November returns are in, Maryland will still have two Baltimoreans as its U.S. Senators. It might well have a governor (Mr. Steinberg, Mrs. Bentley or Mrs. Sauerbrey) from the Baltimore area as well. But this will simply postpone the inevitable. By early in the next century, people from Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, most of them with strong attachments to the federal government, will be at the controls.

That will mean subtle but perceptible changes. It will mean not only new people, but new ideas, and new resentments. If you're a resident of Wheaton or Greenbelt, you'll probably consider these changes overdue. But if you live in Hurlock or Friendsville, or even Hereford or Havre de Grace, they aren't likely to make you feel more kindly disposed toward your state government.

All that's in the distant future, however. Meanwhile, there's the spectacle of a general election awaiting us, and surely a few more chuckles to help us endure it.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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