The old moderation trap

February 02, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- County Executive Chuck Ecker stirs like a sleepy bear out there in his Howard County den, blinking in the winter sunshine and making some vaguely gubernatorial noises. And from the Ellen Sauerbrey wing of the Maryland Republican Party there arises a squeaky, panic-stricken ''Eek!''

Instantly, there is talk to the effect that if he becomes a candidate, Mr. Ecker will shatter the party's imagined unity, and make difficult if not impossible the task of ousting Parris Glendening from the governor's digs next year and replacing him with the first Republican chief executive in 30 years.

Good heavens, one wants to say to these timid souls, get a life! Where were all of you back in 1994, when Mrs. Sauerbrey, underfunded and the target of unprecedented media hostility and condescension, won the support of thousands of Democratic voters and came within a tainted whisker of winning the governorship?

Her achievement in 1994 didn't come about because her party was unified behind her in the primary. She won in September because she blew away her big-foot primary opposition. That victory gave her campaign momentum for the general election that it would never have managed otherwise. If her backers today bothered to think things through, they should welcome an Ecker challenge. It could awaken her supporters and energize her campaign.

Mr. Ecker is an able administrator who has done a good job in Howard County. A former Democrat, he's an affable man who's good with numbers and has plenty of bureaucratic experience, but not much political electricity. He looks more like someone who might head the General Services Administration than a governor.

Now see whom he's lined up as the two major wheelhorses for his campaign -- former Representative Helen Bentley and state Sen. Robert Neall. These two Republicans are favorites of the Baltimore Sun, which prefers so-called ''moderate'' Republicans who can pass for Democrats when the chips are down.

If they're the best Mr. Ecker can come up with, he'd better call in Dick Morris, because he's going to need campaign advice big-time.

Mrs. Bentley was effective enough when she was in office, in her eccentric way, but she's now become a professional sore loser. She was soundly defeated by Mrs. Sauerbrey in the 1994 primary and is still sour as an old pickle about it. Her interest in the 1998 election is revenge, pure and simple.

Mr. Neall is a former Anne Arundel County executive who didn't have the stomach to step forward when his party was seeking a candidate for governor. Now he's in the legislature, where he recently had trouble figuring out that if he tried to be both a senator and a registered lobbyist at the same time, it might not look well. He's not actually a loser, but he's certainly come to resemble one. And he's supposed to lead Chuck Ecker to victory?

Moderates or right-wingers

By contrast, Mrs. Sauerbrey's campaign co-chairmen are John Gary, the current Anne Arundel executive, and Congressman Robert Ehrlich, Mrs. Bentley's successor in the Second District. These two may be moderates, as they'd probably call themselves, or right-wingers, as The Sun would say. But they're also winners.

In 1994, Mrs. Sauerbrey came so tantalizingly close to victory because she was willing to take some risks. She said what she believed, and proposed what she thought was right, including a cut in the Maryland income tax -- something Democrats at this session of the legislature are tumbling over one another to enact.

Mrs. Sauerbrey's 1994 primary rival, Mrs. Bentley, considered herself the leader and tried to sit on her lead. She took no controversial positions and, when pressed, spouted ambiguities. As a strategy it failed miserably, and it's mildly ironic now to see the Sauerbrey campaign hunkering down into a front-runner's defensive crouch.

As to so-called ''moderation,'' which is supposed to be Mr. Ecker's ace in the hole, it's the old trap into which Maryland Republican candidates commonly fall. They're persuaded, often by the media, that unless they sound more like Democrats, they may win primaries but they'll lose general elections. Yet the voters repeatedly conclude that if the choice is between a Democrat and a Democrat in drag, they might as well go for the real thing.

The Ellen Sauerbrey of 1994 has nothing to fear from a Chuck Ecker candidacy. But if the prospect of such a thing continues to induce panic in the ranks of her campaign, we'll know that there's a weaker Sauerbrey getting ready to run in 1998.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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