Studious Centrism May Be What State Needs, Friends Say Defining GLENDENING

January 22, 1995|By C. FRASER SMITH

Removing his rimless glasses to wipe off accumulating rain, Parris N. Glendening cast an eye toward heaven during his inaugural address as if to say, "Could we get a little break here?"

By now he probably expects no relief, but his audience laughed appreciatively.

Mr. Glendening had survived much more than bad weather to become this state's 59th chief executive.

He won the most competitive governor's race in recent Maryland history. He weathered a national conservative tide. He endured an election fraud court challenge.

The usually breezy interregnum between election and swearing-in was not dominated this time by news of Cabinet choices and legislative agendas.

The joy of victory was stifled by news of the election challenge mounted by Ellen R. Sauerbrey, his GOP opponent. Marylanders today might know the facial features of the candidate they rejected more intimately than those of their new governor.

If any of this left Mr. Glendening gloomy as he took office last Wednesday, he gave no hint. His speech was filled with uplifting images: soaring eagles, nurturing family and faith in the value of public service. Still, the tribulations he has faced led him into office with his identity blurred. He was Prince George's County executive for 12 years -- by most accounts an effective one -- but he remains an unknown quantity to many in this state's electorate, half of which wanted Mrs. Sauerbrey.

His persona and his message were muted during the general election campaign as he criticized his opponent's call for a tax cut and characterized her as a right-wing extremist. Aspects of his agenda for Maryland, some of them quite similar to Mrs. Sauerbrey's, were little heard.

But the real Parris has begun to emerge: He announced a year's delay in his pursuit of tighter gun control laws. He said he might consider a tax break for Marylanders -- in time. He would like to avoid more financial dependence on gambling, he said, but he will look carefully at proposals to permit casinos in Maryland.

Some have said these quick moves sketch the portrait of a politician scrambling for the political center. Mrs. Sauerbrey lost the election, they add, but she is calling the tune.

Friends and fellow Democrats reject that notion declaratively -- even those who think Mr. Glendening was too liberal as a candidate in his party's primary.

"Being a centrist will never be duplicating Ellen Sauerbrey," said D. Bruce Poole, a Hagerstown Democrat. "He'll never end up where Ellen would have taken the state. He'll end at the center."

And the studious new governor may be exactly what Maryland needs in these times, Mr. Poole adds: "My guess is people are ready for someone who goes about the business of making government work."

Voters are not simply fed up with taxes, he says. They don't want government dismantled. They want it to produce a better product. A current television snack commercial, showing hundreds of people waiting hopelessly for service, should be the Glendening administration's training film, he suggests.

"He'll respond to the public," assures John T. Willis, a close Glendening adviser and a student of Maryland elections, "but he won't lose his core."

Mr. Willis finds the idea that Mrs. Sauerbrey would be defining the new governor annoying. She borrowed her campaign themes and her tax cut proposal from the blueprint laid down by Rep. Newt Gingrich, Republican of Georgia, in the GOP "Contract with America," he says. Mr. Glendening's politics of racial inclusion, of working closely with business and of belief in government have been hallmarks throughout his career.

Each early step bespeaks pragmatism, say Mr. Willis and others. Real students of the governor's style should read a book called "Pragmatic Federalism," author, Parris Nelson Glendening, a political scientist who has taught his specialty for 27 years at the University of Maryland.

"He's moving back, in public, to where he really is," says Joel Rozner, a former Glendening staffer in Prince George's County who is now a lobbyist in Annapolis.

In the argument that he is shaving back his old liberalism, much has been made of the fact that all but three of Maryland's subdivisions wanted the Republican to win. Delegate Poole observes that population shifts in Maryland are changing the focus of political leaders as well, forcing them to become more suburban.

But Mr. Glendening's theory of the 1994 election had been suburban at its foundation stone. He had been a Tsongas Democrat in Maryland, an endorser of the former Massachusetts senator, Paul Tsongas, when he ran for president -- winning Maryland -- in 1992.

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