Sauerbrey appearance puts Republican governors in an awkward spot

November 22, 1994|By Richard L. Berke | Richard L. Berke,New York Times News Service

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- The name cards on the table all read "Governor" or "Governor-elect," followed by the last name and state. Except one. The title line on the card in front of the woman in the red plaid suit read simply, "Ellen."

The Republican leadership was in an awkward spot yesterday as Ellen Sauerbrey of Maryland insisted on appearing at the meeting of the Republican Governors Association with her new colleagues -- although it seems highly unlikely that they are her new colleagues.

Mrs. Sauerbrey lost her state's gubernatorial race by about 5,400 votes to Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat who is planning his transition to the Governor's Mansion.

Publicly, many Republican partisans backed her up. "We shouldn't leave our wounded lying on the field," said former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who was here preparing to seek the Republican presidential nomination.

But privately, others said they were not quite sure what Mrs. Sauerbrey was doing here, acting as if she were about to be governor. She lost, they said, and she should get over it, unless the state elections board decides otherwise.

Mrs. Sauerbrey refuses to concede. She says there were irregularities in the voting and says her lawyers are hunting for them.

So yesterday, Mrs. Sauerbrey got to sit at the table with the governors and governors-to-be. But she got neither the title, nor the white ribbon like the others. Instead, she stood out with a yellow ribbon on a badge that read, "official party."

"I think my role speaks for itself today," said Mrs. Sauerbrey, who tried to keep tentativeness at bay as she listened with confident interest to a panel on federalism, sandwiched between Govs. William F. Weld of Massachusetts and Gov.-elect Bill Graves of Kansas. "They seated me at the table with other governors. That was their decision."

When asked if she felt as though she did not belong, she shrugged and said, "I feel like I am a legitimate contender." But there was confusion over how to deal with Mrs. Sauerbrey. She was listed on some literature as a governor-elect. But her biography, unlike everyone else's, was not included.

"Some of those things may have been done when we were thinking she may indeed be the governor-elect," said Gov. John R. McKernan Jr. of Maine, chairman of the association. "I introduced her at the breakfast this morning as somebody we hoped would be a governor-elect."

But he made clear that it was not his idea to put Mrs. Sauerbrey front and center. "I didn't invite her," Mr. McKernan said. "But the staff did."

Rather than jumping to Mrs. Sauerbrey's defense, Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican National Committee, smiled when asked why she was seated with the governors and governors-elect. "That's where they put her," he said.

Carol Hirschburg, a spokeswoman for Mrs. Sauerbrey, said she was surprised that some Republicans had questioned her participation. "I'm stunned by any talk of the inappropriateness of her being here," she said, "especially considering that the RGA and RNC people insisted that she come."

Chris Henick, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, said "insist" may be too strong a word. "I don't think it was necessarily arm-twisting," he said, "but we did encourage her to come."

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