Our votes reflect a state of middle temperament

March 10, 1996|By Barry Rascovar

WHAT CAN be gleaned from Maryland's primary election last week? Experience counts. So does moderation. And bridge-building. And persistence.

Chalk up Bob Dole's landslide victory in the Maryland presidential primary to those factors. Elijah Cummings is all but elected to Congress for the same reasons.

Voters in this state clearly aren't ready for flame-throwers on the right or the left. Maryland remains, much as it has been since its founding, a state of middle temperament.

Pat Buchanan never had a chance here. Maryland Republicans still are a moderate bunch -- despite their lurch to the right in the 1994 gubernatorial contest. Exit polls showed that Mr. Dole was the clear choice of a cross-section of GOP voters, be they social conservatives, libertarians, economic conservatives or just plain pragmatists.

Mr. Dole stands for concepts that most state voters can appreciate: determination, courage, loyalty, decency and civility.

''Get it done'' attitude

He also stands for a ''get it done'' philosophy that puts more stress on quietly producing results than toeing an ideological line. For decades he has been raising funds for Republican candidates in this state -- both for conservatives and moderates -- for the good of the GOP.

Though the wing of the party infrastructure that idolizes Ellen R. Sauerbrey snubbed Mr. Dole (he's viewed as too much of a compromiser on conservative issues), voters did not. Neither Pat Buchanan nor Steve Forbes excited enough of them. Bob Dole is solid and safe and dependable. He has loads of experience and success in the Senate. That's all GOP voters needed to know.

The election did not, though, clear up the future leanings of the Maryland GOP. Does the Dole victory indicate a resurgence of moderate influence within the party? Mrs. Sauerbrey and her allies are likely to seize firm control of the party apparatus in the next year and move the state GOP decidedly into the committed conservative camp.

But will that make Republicans more or less electable in the big 1998 state campaigns? History, at least, shows that moderation pleases Maryland voters.

Meanwhile, in the state's 7th Congressional District -- Baltimore and western Baltimore County -- liberal Democratic voters turned to a candidate with similar qualities to Bob Dole's -- Elijah E. Cummings. He'll be going to Congress after the April 16 special election, where he faces token opposition from Republican winner Kenneth Kondner, who got just 18 percent of the general-election vote in 1994 and 15 percent in 1992 and 1990.

Rejected, by a wide margin, was Rev. Frank M. Reid III, the fiery TV preacher who seemed more intent on using Congress as a pulpit for castigating Newt Gingrich than as a forum for hammering out legislation through the give-and-take of politics.

Deeds, not words

Again, voters opted for a results-oriented candidate rather than an orator and ideologue, for someone with considerable experience -- and success -- in a legislative arena over someone without political expertise.

There's a lesson in the Cummings victory. Voters aren't wild about untested candidates. You can file for the office, but don't expect much support unless you've put your time in as an elected official at a lower level.

Yet that doesn't qualify every senator and delegate and court clerk as congressional material. Voters humiliated other office holders in the 7th District race last week.

Why? Because most of them were on ego trips. In baseball parlance, they weren't ''big-league material.'' Not yet, anyway. They lacked knowledge of congressional issues, or the depth of legislative experience, or a network of support beyond their own small General Assembly districts.

A rising star

Much of the credit for the Cummings victory belongs to his campaign strategist, Julius Henson, a rising star in local politics. After masterminding the surprising victory of city Comptroller Joan Pratt last year, Mr. Henson engineered a masterful Cummings campaign.

In just two months, he far outdistanced other candidates in fund-raising; amassed an army of supporters from political organizations outside Mr. Cummings' home base that got people to the polls and produced an effective media campaign that portrayed the candidate as a bridge-builder and problem-solver among black and white, rich and poor, liberal and conservative.

It worked. Now the only question is where Mr. Henson goes from here. His twin successes could make him a rival of Larry S. Gibson as Baltimore's top political strategist and organizer.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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