Plenty of Shame to Share

January 12, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Ellen Sauerbrey's legal assault on the gubernatorial election she so narrowly lost may in the long run have positive consequences for Maryland, but at the moment its main product seems to be embarrassment. There's plenty of that to go around.

Those concerned with the public image of the state are embarrassed, because once again Maryland's lurid politics make resemble places it would much prefer to look down on.

Backers of Mrs. Sauerbrey are embarrassed too, because thus far she doesn't appear able to substantiate fully her assertion that the election was stolen from her by old-fashioned funny business in a few city precincts. Even in the highly unlikely event that she prevails in court, the embarrassment will linger. No one likes to be associated with a sore loser.

And a great many Democrats are embarrassed -- or at least feel obliged to pretend that they are. The Sauerbrey lawsuit has managed to shine a faint light into some of the party's normally uninspected closets, and even if the funny business it has turned up didn't actually tip the election, it seems pretty clear that some fraudulent activities did take place on behalf of Democratic candidates.

Hardly anyone is really surprised by this. Maryland, and especially Baltimore, has a long history of minor election-day transgressions, and the people who have complained most loudly about them -- the League of Women Voters, newspaper editorialists, occasional Republicans -- have always seemed vaguely prissy, out of touch with the real world.

There is a sort of machismo at work here. It isn't hard to find Maryland Democrats, completely honorable people in other respects, who view petty political corruption much the way Eastern Shore residents a generation or so back used to view violations of the game laws. The lawbreakers are seen as colorful but harmless rogues, and their antics, woven into local folklore, acquire something resembling legitimacy.

Apologists for this behavior consider themselves realists, not defenders of criminals. Most of them would be genuinely shocked at the idea of stealing an election, and would favor the punishment of anyone caught doing so. But they see stealing a few votes here and there as just part of the grand old game.

Petty chicanery, after all, helps keep up the good spirits of the precinct workers, and one-sided election results produce smiles at party headquarters and improved patronage benefits for the precinct. If election-day corner-cutting takes place in an urban area where respect for law is already low, it's even easier to justify.

Whether it's the distribution of ''walking-around money'' to help buy votes, or giving unregistered Cousin Bob the name of a dead Democrat to use at the polls, when this sort of thing doesn't obviously change the results of an election it can seem of little consequence. But when elections get close, it takes on a different character.

My guess is that Ellen Sauerbrey took her quixotic campaign to the courts for two reasons. First, she was pressed to do so by people who had worked hard for her, and whom she didn't want to let down. And second, if there had indeed been fraud (and the only real doubt about that was how much) she felt

an obligation to expose it.

Yet she must have known that going to court was a no-win proposition for her personally. By not accepting the election results, she immediately exposed her reputation to enormous risk. If she lost she would be laughed at, and if she were declared the winner by a judge's order, her victory would be a hollow one.

It's worth noting that there's a touch of a double standard here.

Suppose Mrs. Sauerbrey had narrowly won the election November 8 with a last-minute avalanche of votes in heavily Republican Garrett County. And suppose Parris Glendening's campaign investigated, and turned up evidence of the kind of abuses that have been substantiated in Baltimore. Would Mr. Glendening then have been mocked and derided for turning to the courts for help?

And imagine the editorial response if it turned out that while there had been Republican fraud in Garrett County, it probably hadn't been widespread enough to change the election results, and that Mrs. Sauerbrey would have been elected governor anyway even without the votes of a few dead mountaineers.

Would there be calls for further investigation, or would Mr. Glendening be savaged for bringing an unsuccessful lawsuit? Would there be sympathy for him, or would his political career be summarily declared over? If you're credulous enough to think the media coverage would have been identical under those different circumstances, you'd better have someone else buy you your next used car.

It's fair enough for Ellen Sauerbrey to get hammered over her ill-advised lawsuit. But because she carried 21 of 23 counties in ,, the general election, she's getting hammered extra hard by all those experts who said she never had a chance.

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

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