Glendening needs city city needs to know who he is

October 27, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Parris Glendening is the man in the gray flannel personality. The geniuses who figure such things say he needs the city of Baltimore to back him big on Election Day, but a lot of city people are still asking, Who is this guy?

What we know is who he's not. He's not Ellen Sauerbrey. Glendening's spending millions on television commercials painting Sauerbrey as the city's Fatal Attraction: Throw her a kiss, and she takes your children for a ride.

Sauerbrey says she'll cut 24 percent in state taxes over the next four years. While many call this a con game -- and even Sauerbrey herself was hedging in her TV debate a week ago, but not until Glendening had run out of time to rebut her -- she's still struck a nerve with people who hear tax cut and dream of financial relief.

Glendening's offered no such dramatic panaceas, real or even imagined. He's a man who can numb you with policy talk. He probably studies zoning ordinances as light reading matter. He's like some midlevel Bureau of Licensing and Regulations lifer who's memorized all the rules and hopes this will transform him into John F. Kennedy.

But the pollsters say he probably can't become governor without Baltimore embracing him in big numbers, and this becomes the great irony of the campaign. Baltimore doesn't yet know how to read him, even as we understand we've come to a crossroads with this election.

The long-anticipated political power shift from here to the Washington-area suburbs would arrive with Glendening, who knows this clearly enough that he's reminded voters in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, in language not quite intended for Baltimore ears, that they can now wrest power from the city.

Can Baltimore voters fall in love with such a figure? Do they have a choice? Sauerbrey's from Baltimore County, but not so you'd notice. Her message of state tax cuts brings a sense of dread to city people already carrying crushing local property tax burdens, and to county voters who see the same dreaded handwriting on the wall.

That's the message Glendening will be reinforcing in these final campaign days: Like him or not, he's the area's last best hope.

"I don't want to sound like an alarmist," he was saying the other day (and probably relishing the sense of alarm he was sounding), "but the city will start to dry up and die, in terms of basic services, if Ellen's tax plan is implemented.

"That's the message we're telling the whole state, but in Baltimore it'll be absolutely desperate. Ellen's role model is New Jersey. Well, now New Jersey has a $2.3 billion shortfall, and their budget director says they've had to cut education and police aid more than anything."

Some of this, we've been hearing for weeks. Two days ago, we even heard it from some Republicans, politicians and business people, who publicly defected to Glendening's camp and blamed it on Sauerbrey's tax plan.

But it still leaves this gnawing emptiness about Glendening. Can the city believe him when he talks of understanding our problems, or do we suspect him for the things he's whispered to his home folks?

"We have not gotten our own message out as successfully as we want," Glendening admits. "Many people in the city are just starting to focus on the race, and the leadership in the communities is getting concerned.

"When we talk about urban grants, about targeted tax credits in certain communities, they know these are things that aren't part of Ellen's thinking, and they know they'd be abandoned as a matter of philosophy if she's elected. We've got to invest in communities. Ellen thinks the private sector will take care of that by themselves."

Again, Glendening's talk is less reflective of himself than a slap at Sauerbrey. Simply rapping her doesn't energize people on Election Day if they see no one else to embrace. Glendening says this will change.

"Two weeks of very intensive positive message," he says. "The ads will emphasize my experience, how I've governed a county that's bigger than six states and every bit as diverse as the Baltimore area."

For voters who have heard the TV put-downs of Sauerbrey, this will come as a belated introduction. Glendening's been running all summer and fall now, but around here, he's still a hazy figure with an unclear message.

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