The Time Has Come to Call Off the Lawyers

November 17, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace.--A deceiving serenity is settling over Maryland now, as Parris Glendening prepares to accept the governorship and Ellen Sauerbrey watches it slip like smoke between her fingers.

The losers, if perhaps not yet the candidate herself, are remarkably tranquil, feeling on the whole vindicated by the near-success of their not-a-chance-in-hell campaign. But the winners are enormously, heart-poundingly relieved. To all with a stake in the status quo, Mrs. Sauerbrey was terrifying, while Mr. Glendening is as reassuring as a stuffed rabbit in the nursery.

Of course, no matter how you dress it, a defeat is still a defeat. The loser may have had an impact, but the winner still makes the appointments, rides in the limo and gets to name things after himself. Near misses may count in horseshoes, as the axiom goes, but not generally in politics.

Proximity does matter in hand grenades, however, and Mrs. Sauerbrey's hand grenade of a campaign certainly made itself felt. Even in defeat it made a bigger bang than the dud that won her opponent the election. She done good. She made a difference. But now the time has come to call off the lawyers and accept Professor Glendening as William Donald Schaefer's legitimate heir. Le gouverneur est mort, vive le gouverneur!

It won't be easy. As the loser of the election, candidate Sauerbrey must reconcile two conflicting responsibilities, a narrow one to her supporters and a broader one to the state.

In the face of what can charitably be called suspicious behavior by ballot counters in certain Glendening jurisdictions, she had to show those who had worked to elect her that she's as tough as they thought, and that she wasn't going to accept a mugging.

On the other hand, she's well aware that there's a thin line separating legitimate protest from whiny quibbling. Those who are seen as sore losers weaken their own future prospects, and taint the platform they campaigned on. Mrs. Sauerbrey now needs to pause, have a good night's sleep, and consider -- Richard Nixon. The Nixon precedent's an interesting one.

In 1960 there was ample evidence that fraud in two states, Illinois and Texas, had won the presidency for John Kennedy over Nixon.

Kennedy carried Texas, and its 24 electoral votes, by a margin of 46,000 out of 2.3 million cast. In keeping with the traditions of the Lone Star state, the dead rose up to cast Democratic ballots. In some instances the contents of ballot boxes vanished, and in one precinct 6,138 people voted even though only 4,895 were registered.

In Illinois, with 27 electoral votes, Kennedy won by 8,000 votes out of 4.7 million, which makes the Glendening victory look like a landslide. The key was an amazing 450,000-vote margin in Chicago, where Democratic election officials made sure the returns were held back -- does this sound oddly familiar? -- until the results from the rest of the state were in. Later investigations turned up Chicago residents who had voted more than once (one said he'd voted six times), payoffs to voters and rigged voting machines. (One machine was found to have recorded 121 votes after 43 people had cast their ballots.)

Influential Republicans, including President Eisenhower, urged Nixon to challenge the results. But he didn't. He even called in Earl Mazo, the reporter from the New York Herald Tribune who day after day was documenting election frauds, and urged him to stop. ''No one steals the presidency of the United States,'' he said. A month after the election, with discontent and suspicion still casting a shadow over the results, Nixon personally told John Kennedy he would demand no recount.

It wasn't beyond Richard Nixon's character to be a sore loser. When he lost the governorship of California in 1962, he accepted defeat without much class. But his performance in the wake of his loss in 1960 showed him at his best, and made him a stronger candidate and more credible candidate eight years later when he returned from political exile and won.

Ellen Sauerbrey's political options today are more limited than Richard Nixon's were in 1960. She will no doubt be urged to challenge Mr. Glendening again, or perhaps take on U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski, but neither will be on the ballot until 1998 -- a long four years in the future.

She won't have her old seat in the House of Delegates to use as a platform. She won't have an Annapolis office, or a staff. She'll have the respect of the state Republican party she helped to energize -- except perhaps for soreheads like Helen Bentley and wets like the forgettable former state party chairman Allan Levey -- but in politics respect is like a savings account. It's nice to have, but after you use it, it's gone.

Still, the Nixon example shows that political lives don't have to end with a defeat. A little luck and a lot of perseverance can work wonders.

It also helps if the opposition screws up, but here in scandal-free Maryland that would never happen.

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

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