Maryland Voters Face a Defining Race for Governor

November 06, 1994|By C. FRASER SMITH

If clear choices were a cure for the voter malaise of 1994, Marylanders might be on the road to recovery.

Throughout the United States, voters are said to be on the verge of electoral paralysis, so vexed are they by a political system that seems to shut them out.

Marylanders, though, could enjoy a virtual hands-on adventure in statecraft this year. Not in a quarter-century have they been treated to such a competitive and defining race for governor.

"What you've got in Maryland is what we should all have," says Becky Cain, national president of the League of Women Voters. "You've got candidates who've been willing to articulate their differences."

Perhaps, some voters would have preferred a wider range of choices now or in the primaries, but to paraphrase the father of all anti-incumbents, George Corley Wallace of Ala- bama, there's a lot more than a dime's worth of difference between these two.

Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a little-known House of Delegates veteran, bids to re-write Maryland political history. She would be the state's first female governor. And she would achieve that distinction by rejecting the view that Republicans can win in this state only by denying their Republicanism, by moderating their views to attract Democratic support.

Starting with so little name recognition that some voters knew her platform before they knew her name, she has ridden the wave of disaffection as if it were her destiny and Maryland's. A Sauerbrey victory would end 26 years of Democratic rule and would bring her promise of a 24 percent cut in personal income taxes over four years.

Her opponent, Democrat Parris N. Glendening, the three-term Prince George's County executive, matched her performance in his own primary, building a mighty surge that swept away several rivals.

In his matchup with Mrs. Sauerbrey, he has offered absolutely no quarter, insisting that government must work well and can in competent hands -- his hands.

Tax cuts of the size proposed by his opponent, he says, are illusory "sugar plums." Marylanders are too sophisticated to fall for what his television advertisements call a "gimmick."

One of Mr. Glendening's chief strategists, John T. Willis, says the candidates are so different that a pure and profound "conversion" would be necessary now to change minds at this point in the race. Since most Marylanders are registered Democrats, he reasons, the campaign favors his man.

Carol Hirschburg, one of Mrs. Sauerbrey's advisers, agrees that the candidates oppose each other across a deep philosophical divide. But she thinks the conversions have been occurring for years -- not just to the GOP but to the ranks of the independents: "The course of the mainstream in Maryland," she says with confident finality, "has shifted."

Voters will speak on Tuesday.

Pollsters, academics and officials of national voter registration projects say the well-heralded anger of 1994 will influence decision making in Maryland and elsewhere. Some will vote with no objective in mind other than change. And an angry voter whose objective is to derail the legislative locomotive might not be a careful analyst.

A consensus holds that the electorate is not nearly finished with its determination to find new blood -- by letting old blood if necessary.

"We are not at all beyond message sending in this election," says Curtis B. Gans, director of the Washington-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. In general, he says, "We have still not had a serious debate about anything."

Voter anger is presented as irrationality, but it seems to flow from a thoroughgoing disgust with the system -- negative advertising, refusal by commercial media outlets to televise debates, the corrupting role of money, resistance by those in power to change the electoral system to bring in wider points of view. No single election is likely, then, to put the

voters' unhappiness into remission. Fundamental reform will be necessary to do that.

In the meantime, the aggressive assault on officeholders seems to target Democrats because they have a majority of the officeholders, but analysts such as Andrew Kohut of the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press say Republicans can take only momentary solace.

"It's time to throw the rascals out and elect a new bunch of rascals," one voter said giddily last week in a radio interview.

Moreover, a certain amount of confusion creeps into the process. A majority of voters in a Wilmington (Del.) News Journal poll agreed with both of the following: Delaware Republican Sen. William Roth "has been senator for 24 years, and it is now time for a change"; and Mr. Roth "has been an outstanding senator and deserves re-election."

Little time for analysis

Perhaps, some of the voters' anger is rooted in the knowledge that they spend less time considering their options than they would like. With more and more two-worker households, time for careful analysis is reduced.

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