Fishing for votes in the Chesapeake

October 02, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Suddenly, with Maryland's primary election less than a year away, the state's political Muscle Beach is eerily deserted. Whatever happened to all those fire-breathing Democratic candidates for governor who were going to kick sand in Parris Glendening's face?

Congressman Ben Cardin, having learned to his astonishment that in Maryland the office of governor is not appointive, has scurried back to Washington to instruct the Republicans there about ethics in government. Cas Taylor, the speaker of the House of Delegates, has vanished into the Cumberland gap.

The departure of these two awesome rivals leaves Mr. Glendening almost alone on the beach. Beaming in the autumnal sunshine, he appears rested and tanned.

There is the slightest whiff of fish about him, but it isn't unpleasant -- only a gentle reminder that he's for the people and the striped bass, and against the special interests and Pfiesteria.

There is one other prominent figure on display at the beach this fall: Harford County's fabled executive, Eileen Rehrmann. Mrs. Rehrmann still has her cool blue eyes fixed on the governor's job, and insists that hers is a campaign to be taken seriously. She hasn't kicked any sand in Mr. Glendening's face yet, but implies that she will, at any moment. Oddly, he doesn't seem rattled.

Hip boots

Mrs. Rehrmann doesn't fish, except for contributions, and certainly has never been known to smell fishy. She isn't the sort of person who spends much time in hip boots. In general, she would rather talk about Pfiscal conservatism than Pfiesteria. For company, she prefers tycoons to tongers.

She did take a few perfunctory whacks at Mr. Glendening over his management of the current pollution crisis, the scary florescence of a toxic microorganism -- Pfiesteria -- in several Eastern Shore rivers.

But when he initially received good marks for his approach from the official scorers in the press, and when it became apparent that the crisis wasn't going to turn into a political scandal, she subsided.

That may be temporary, though. Right now, the governor is getting bashed over Pfiesteria from the left, for not doing enough, and from the right, for doing too much. It wouldn't be astonishing if Mrs. Rehrmann suddenly found a way to clobber him from both sides at the same time, and emerged as an instant expert on fish policy. She's no philosopher queen, but she's a quick study.

Eileen Rehrmann has been a compulsive politician for years, and as she advances into her middle years, the internal fires which drive her seem to be burning as strongly as ever. On November 30 -- yes, she's a Sagittarius -- she will be 53 years old. She has held elective office since she first won a seat on the Bel Air board of commissioners in 1979, and she does not look kindly on the thought of retirement.

Her incendiary political ambition, by itself, is no real reason why she should be the next governor of Maryland, or could be the next governor of Maryland. But considering the vulnerabilities of the incumbent, if her determination is as genuine as it seems, her candidacy can't be ruled out.

How has she done in her seven years as the Harford County executive? Fairly well, it seems to me. She has lacked the cantankerous independence and instinctive fiscal common sense of her predecessor, Habern Freeman, but with her political agility she has avoided many pitfalls. And she easily won re-election in 1994, when Republicans were taking most other county offices.

She learned an important lesson in 1990, when she first ran for executive. After she won the Democratic nomination, she had the county's entrenched political structure eating out of her hand, and generally behaving as though the election were already in the bag. But the voters weren't dazzled, and she barely squeaked through in the general election, edging a little-known Republican by fewer than 800 votes.

She responded appropriately to this signal from the grass roots, governing very cautiously, avoiding imperial programs and the obvious favoritism which once was a local tradition, and keeping taxes down.

She did not, however, share Mr. Freeman's aversion to borrowing, and the county debt has risen substantially during her tenure. As a result, a lot of Harford County people -- I was one of them -- who didn't vote for her in 1990 changed their minds four years later.

She's done well enough so that she could perhaps be re-elected in Harford County next year, if the county charter permitted a third term. But that would be by no means guaranteed. There's plenty of discontent in the Harford County air right now over local land-planning issues, and fairly or not, it's focused sharply on the executive.

Yet Eileen Rehrmann is a political survivor. It's a reasonable guess that when primary election time comes around next year, if Mr. Glendening has a serious opponent for governor, it won't be Mrs. Rehrmann.

But if at that time she's no longer a candidate, she won't be out in the cold looking wistfully in. She'll have cut a deal, landed on her feet and will be already considering her latest options.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 10/02/97

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