Glendening's 1998 prospects much brighter

October 12, 1997|By Barry Rascovar

PARRIS GLENDENING is on a roll. Things are going his way. The path to a second term as governor appears largely unobstructed.

He's had good fortune, as he's had throughout much of his career.

His biggest worry in the Democratic primary, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, didn't have the stomach for a tough, bruising race. House Speaker Casper R. Taylor took a careful look, then bowed out.

His remaining primary worry at the moment, Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, has yet to build the kind of statewide support to alarm the governor.

Meanwhile, his likely Republican foe, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, badly stubbed her toe on the "Pfiesteria hysteria."

Instead of capitalizing on public agitation stemming from the fish-kills in Chesapeake tributaries, Ms. Sauerbrey came off sounding uninformed and opportunistic, as if she were trying to turn a public-health emergency into a "what's good for business (the watermen) is good for Maryland" argument. Later, she issued one of those "I didn't really say that" statements.

Just by acting gubernatorial, Mr. Glendening looked good in comparison.

Environmental activists may complain that he should have moved sooner when sick fish appeared last year, but Mr. Glendening responded swiftly once the scientific dangers became clear. He set up a blue-ribbon panel to investigate. He convened a meeting of coastal governors with similar problems. He met with federal officials, watermen and Eastern Shore residents.

And he tried, with little success, to allay the fears of consumers in Maryland and elsewhere about the health of Chesapeake seafood. When grocery chains stopped selling all Maryland seafood, he pressured them to ease their boycott. He essentially told them, "Stop making a bad situation worse."

All this has the governor in good public graces. His critics say he over-dramatized the situation for political gain, which helped spread the consumer hysteria. But Mr. Glendening did what most citizens expect of their governor: He took firm, decisive steps to confront a burgeoning public crisis.

On the political front, the governor is quietly raising large chunks of campaign dollars at private soirees attended by business leaders dependent on the state. Mr. Glendening is not shy about seeking financial support, a quality that rubs many businessmen the wrong way.

But the tactic seems to be working. He is building a substantial war chest to counter what is expected to be aggressive campaigning by Ms. Sauerbrey and her ardent boosters among corporate conservatives.

Voters may not be wild about Parris. That's all right with him. All he wants is their support, however grudging, on election day.

Changes ahead

Yet if things are rosy for the governor at the moment, he must know that the situation could change sharply a year from now. It is far too early to predict the public's mood in September or November of 1998.

Here are some of the things that could go wrong:

The economy could cool (as Fed chairman Alan Greenspan suggested this past week), increasing voter concern about job security and giving rise to fresh alarms over the governor's big-spending habits.

The Pfiesteria fish-kills could return and spread to more rivers next summer. Folks might not feel so kindly toward the governor if dead fish resurface.

The legislature could go to war with Mr. Glendening over his spending proposals, including $250 million (over five years) for Prince George's County schools, a big boost in pension benefits for state workers and a $100 million free-tuition program for B-average college students. Such disputes could help Ms. Sauerbrey in her drive to get voters to think of the governor as "Parris Spendening."

Violence in the state's overcrowded prisons could unleash pent-up criticism of the governor's no-build (he would call it slow-build) prison program.

The announcement of a major corporate employer leaving the state. This would trigger a new debate over Maryland's business climate and renewed discussion of a pivotal Sauerbrey campaign issue -- a deeper and more immediate cut in the state's income-tax rates to make Maryland more business-friendly.

So far, much of the antipathy toward Mr. Glendening seems to be based more on personality than policy. His poll numbers remain far from impressive, but they're improving. The stars are in alignment.

Parris Glendening would be an easy winner if the election were held in November, 1997. But he's got a year to go before voters pass judgment. In politics, that can be an eternity.

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

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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