Enemy may be governor's friend Pfiesteria crisis gives him chance to shore up his image

September 17, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Timothy B. Wheeler and C. Fraser Smith contributed to this article.

Few things improve the stature of a political leader as much as finding the right enemy, and Gov. Parris N. Glendening might have met his in a microscopic fish-killer named Pfiesteria piscicida.

For several weeks, Glendening has publicly taken charge of Maryland's response to a toxic outbreak that has killed fish, sickened as many as 28 people and led to the closing of three Chesapeake Bay tributaries.

For the governor, the Pfiesteria outbreak has come as an opportunity to recast his image after a series of self-created difficulties that have made him one of the nation's least popular governors.

The problem is in its early stages, and confronting it carries a long-term political risk, but Glendening is getting high marks for his handling of the Pfiesteria outbreak, even from people who have not supported him in the past.

"I don't know what else he could do or the state could do that would help solve this problem," said Mayor Curt Lippoldt of Pocomoke City.

"He's doing a good job of crisis management," said Herb Smith, a professor and pollster who follows Maryland politics closely. "It's a lock-and-load plus for him."

The governor's key decisions -- notably the prompt closing of rivers once scientists linked Pfiesteria exposure with human ailments -- have met with little opposition.

At critical turns, such as when Pfiesteria was found in places beyond the Pocomoke River, Glendening has explained the news on television. He is credited with communicating more effectively on this issue than on others during his term.

"He's been the voice of concern and reason," said Paul Herrnson, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Ray Feldmann, a spokesman for the governor, said Glendening does not regard Pfiesteria as a political issue and hasn't been seeking additional exposure as a result of the problem.

But the Pfiesteria outbreak is the kind of challenge on which political leaders are judged.

The biggest test for the governor lies ahead, in crafting long-term policy initiatives to deal with the Pfiesteria threat.

If he advocates strong controls on agricultural pollution, he will alienate farmers and chicken processors. If his response is perceived as wishy-washy, watermen and environmentalists will feel betrayed.

Pfiesteria publicity has taken a toll on the Maryland seafood lTC industry. Consumers are avoiding even fish that never came close to the Chesapeake Bay. Industry representatives are blaming the news media more than the governor, although some critics contend that Glendening's high-profile role might have exacerbated the damage.

"I don't think the governor has contributed a very positive message," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican who criticized Glendening for calling a summit of regional governors and appealing to the White House for federal help. "To keep it in the public view at that high a level is a disservice to good science."

Glendening has seemed quite comfortable with his role as the man in charge.

The governor looked decisive when he announced that scientists had established a tentative link between human illness and exposure to Pfiesteria toxins in the Pocomoke River. He immediately ordered the closing of the lower Pocomoke -- the day before the busy Labor Day weekend.

Dr. Ritchie C. Shoemaker, the Pocomoke City physician who first sounded the alarm about Pfiesteria-linked human health problems, said Glendening's response provides a model for other governors.

'A lot of courage'

"Instead of trying to suppress it, Glendening got up and said there is a human health problem. That took a lot of courage," Shoemaker said.

When fish with Pfiesteria-type lesions were found in Kings Creek last week, the governor closed the stream within hours. When infected fish were found in the Chicamacomico River Saturday, he ordered it closed, too.

Glendening's quick action in closing the bay tributaries contrasts with Virginia Gov. George Allen's decision to leave the Rappahannock River open after fish with Pfiesteria-type lesions were found there. Allen, a Republican, was criticized by environmentalists and his Democratic lieutenant governor for failing to follow Glendening's example.

In many ways, the Pfiesteria problem plays to Glendening's strengths. It is a complicated scientific and economic issue for a governor who revels in policy details. And it focuses the public's attention on the bay.

Del. Leon G. Billings, a Montgomery County Democrat and an ardent environmentalist, said the bay is Glendening's "best issue."

"Parris gets a lot of grief for some of the stuff he does, but on the environment he's about as green as he can get," Billings said.

Glendening's handling of Pfiesteria has helped shore up his support among environmentalists, who at times have been disappointed in him.

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