Sauerbrey's Handbag

October 02, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

Maryland Republicans, a reviving but still minimal tribe, have found their Margaret Thatcher. Ellen Sauerbrey, 57, has an ideological clarity and pugnacity comparable to that of the prime minister who, it was said, could not see the status quo without hitting it with her handbag.

In last month's gubernatorial primary Mrs. Sauerbrey, minority leader of the state House of Delegates, scored a stunning 52 percent to 38 percent upset over the presumptive nominee, Congresswoman Helen Bentley. Mrs. Sauerbrey, whose slogans are ''This time, try something different'' and ''Vote yourself a 24 percent tax cut,'' preaches high-octane conservatism, from more prisons to less welfare.

Experts say this is a recipe for rejection in a state whose last Republican governor, elected 28 years ago, was Spiro Agnew; which has not had a Republican majority in either house of the state legislature since 1919, and currently has a legislature with 155 Democrats and 34 Republicans.

Fifty years ago half of Marylanders were Baltimoreans, and only 20 percent were suburban. Today 15 percent live in Baltimore, 65 percent in suburbs, most in Baltimore County and two Washington suburban counties -- Montgomery, one of the nation's richest counties, and Prince George's, which is half African-American. The two core constituencies of the Democratic Party nationally are African-Americans and government employees. Maryland is a dormitory for much of the federal government and has the highest percentage of African-Americans (almost 25 percent) outside the Deep South.

So, why is Mrs. Sauerbrey running competitively against Parris Glendening, an orthodox, presentable Democrat who is county executive in Prince George's? Perhaps many Democrats like the idea of a handbag applied firmly to Annapolis, where the state government has made Maryland, according to Money magazine, third only to New York and Oregon among high-tax states.

Such ratings are disputable, but Maryland's income tax is 44 percent more burdensome than the average state income tax. Mrs. Sauerbrey lives north of Baltimore and says cars stream north into Pennsylvania at the end of the workday because Maryland's income tax is 52 percent higher than Pennsylvania's.

Her promise to cut Maryland's tax 24 percent in four years has revealed the intellectual exhaustion of Democrats who are reduced to recycling George Bush's rhetoric, accusing Mrs. Sauerbrey of ''voodoo economics'' and saying she couldn't do it. Last week she campaigned with a governor who is doing it -- New Jersey's Christine Todd Whitman, who in her first year is on schedule to fulfilling her promise of a 30 percent state income tax cut.

Ms. Whitman cited New Jersey's experience to refute the contention that state tax cuts necessarily cause increases in local property taxes. Mrs. Sauerbrey hopes to get campaign appearances from other tax-cutting Republican governors -- -Z Massachusetts' Bill Weld, Michigan's John Engler, former Delaware Gov. Pete du Pont. She would find budget cutting easier than they did because the budgeting powers of Maryland's governor are Caesaristic.

But will her message be heard? Marylanders who do not read the Baltimore Sun are apt to read the Washington Post, and neither paper is sympathetic to tax cutting. Her opponent, having access to the money machinery perfected during decades of Democratic dominance, is forswearing public financing and hence can spend without limits.

Because of the lateness of the primary and the weakness of the state GOP, Mrs. Sauerbrey is relying on $1 million in state financing, and so is forbidden to spend more. Mr. Glendening spent about $3.5 million in the primary, Mrs. Sauerbrey just over $700,000.

Furthermore, the Democratic-controlled legislature recently changed from $10,000 to $2 million the amount the state parties can spend on behalf of candidates. And last week the state attorney general, a Democrat, ruled that because Mrs. Sauerbrey is receiving public financing, any sum the Republican Party spends supporting her -- even printing sample ballots with her name on them -- must be subtracted from her $1 million. So total spending for her for the entire political season will be well under $2 million. Spending for Mr. Glendening could exceed $8 million.

The polling company that showed Mrs. Sauerbrey losing to Mrs. Bentley by 15 points four days before she won the primary by 14 points now has her trailing Glendening 47-40.

She is running against so much history and money, it will take a national tidal wave of conservatism to lift her into office (where her first act should be to smack the attorney general's office with her handbag). Her race bears watching as a leading indicator of tidal activity.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.