Political trouble hounds governor Casino controversy, fund-raising criticism erode popularity

August 18, 1996|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

Nineteen months into his first term, Gov. Parris N. Glendening finds himself in serious political trouble as virtually continuous controversy pushes him down in the polls, turns financial backers away and makes members of his own party wonder if he can be re-elected in 1998.

His image as a policy-driven devotee of good government has faded in the light of episodes that threaten to redefine him as an obsessive campaign fund-raiser and an elusive political deal-maker who makes commitments and then abandons them to suit his needs.

The governor says he remains focused on the policy questions that will matter most to voters in the long run. He blames his current situation on political enemies, opponents in the business world and "the nature of news."

"Not a criticism," he says, "it's just that the more controversial items get coverage."

But, in conversations across the state and in a number of public forums, including last week's convention of the Maryland Association of Counties, Glen-dening's difficulties and their implications for his party have been a galvanizing topic.

High-ranking Democrats and the business people who support them are openly discussing the possibility of trying to depose him if his vulnerability to a GOP challenger worsens. Even if he is not subjected to a primary challenge, party officials are thinking about ways to "insulate" themselves against the negative weight he could bring to their '98 tickets.

"If he is going to be the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, we have to find a way to stem the bleeding," said a Montgomery County legislator who says the governor is faring poorly with voters there despite his commitment of $40 million in school construction money.

His status has slipped further during the summer as one of his financial supporters was accused of laundering campaign funds. Glendening's apparent support, then door-slamming rejection of slot machines as a source of state revenue left him seeming indecisive and then arbitrary. And he made a fund-raising trip to New York aboard the corporate jet of a company seeking government business in Maryland.

'Maryland's for sale'

"He has not turned out to be the man we thought we were voting for," a Montgomery voter told her county executive, Doug Duncan.

"What particularly disturbed her was the New York fund-raiser," Duncan said. "That, more than the slots question, shocked people. It just said, 'Maryland's for sale.' "

Glendening's assertion that he had not known of his host's business interest until he was airborne and then refused his money was unpersuasive, Duncan said, particularly because the governor was willing to take contributions from others at the party.

However damaging this may be, a political lifetime remains before Glendening would stand for re-election in 1998 -- plenty of time to recover.

In an interview last week, the governor said his current problems are rooted in the difficulty of making the policy issues he cares passionately about exciting enough to gain a headline. Beyond that, he said, political trouble can usually be traced to enemies in the legislature who want his job or to business people who oppose his commitment to organized labor.

"My opponents in the city, in the business community there, are the people who are strongly pushing for casinos," he said. "They would just love to see me go down and have a casino advocate in there."

Whatever their origin, his problems are serious:

* His political alliances with Democrats in Baltimore and in the Washington suburbs show signs of cracking.

* Some business people are threatening to withhold campaign fund-raising support. That inclination could worsen in the aftermath of the New York trip and the tribulations of Joseph A. De Francis, the racing magnate who sent Glendening money through relatives in violation of campaign finance laws. The perception that these businesses were "burned" for their trouble may keep others out of the game.

* With his standing in public opinion polls low and falling, some party insiders already speak of him as a one-term governor.

His difficulties lie in the state's Democratic heartland -- the Washington suburbs and the city of Baltimore. Those precincts gave him his 1994 margin of victory. Leaders there, urged forward by a few angry business people -- including some gambling interests -- are compiling a roster of potential primary opponents.

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. of Cumberland are at the top of the list. Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and Montgomery County's Duncan are also mentioned.

Seasoned participants in Maryland politics bet against a primary challenge -- though several of the potential challengers are clearly excited by the possibility.

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