Rousing race for governor possible A weaker Glendening would raise hopes of his party foes, GOP

Campaign 1998

November 03, 1997|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

What a rousing political year it could be -- or what a dud.

With exactly 12 months to go before the 1998 general election, insiders say the race for governor of Maryland could look very much like the 1994 campaign -- though this time mud could fly.

Even dissident Democrats are becoming resigned to a rematch between their party's leader, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, and the Republicans' likely nominee, Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

As they look ahead, members of the two parties have distinctly different hopes: Republicans pray fervently for Democratic upheaval that wounds but doesn't topple Glendening in next September's primary. They want a weakened and vulnerable target in the Nov. 3 general election, not a fresh, unscarred newcomer.

Democrats hope for continued low unemployment, shorter welfare rolls -- and boredom.

"The only way the incumbent loses," said George Griffin, an aide and political adviser to Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, "is if the challenger can generate discontent. If it's a boring election and a good economy, Glendening wins."

No ally of Glendening's, Griffin's boss is one of three politically popular local government leaders, all in areas whereGlendening draws most of his support, who are cool to the governor. The others are Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Glendening won in 1994 only by carrying these three populous and overwhelmingly Democratic subdivisions. He lost every other county in the state. Glendening would seem to face considerable difficulty if he cannot achieve the same margin of victory in these three areas.

Anti-Glendening Democrats, even as they worry that Sauerbrey may be strong enough to win the general election, fear they will have no suitable alternative -- and some of them might bolt to Sauerbrey. They cling to the hope that Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann will mature into a strong, well-financed contender.

"I told Ellen the other day that I'd be with Eileen until I thought she couldn't do it -- and then I'd be a Sauerbrey man," said one of Glendening's Democratic critics. That Sauerbrey and an influential Democrat would be talking at all is news and one of the reasons the 1998 campaign holds the promise of some drama.

Though the governor boldly predicted he would have no primary opponent, Rehrmann continues to fill her campaign purse at a string of high-visibility fund-raisers.

Former Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs held one, as did Henry Rosenberg Jr., chief executive officer of Crown Central Petroleum Corp. Rehrmann's recent circulation of a costly brochure designed to create name recognition was well-received: 3,000 brochure recipients reportedly filled out a card offering their volunteer help.

Rehrmann is regarded by some Democrats -- and Republicans -- as a stronger general election opponent for Sauerbrey than Glendening, who has been damaged by a pension scandal, fund-raising controversies and his apparent failure to bond with Maryland voters.

Yet Glendening draws strength from his impeccable Democratic credentials, a healthy economy and a more sure-footed approach to his work in Annapolis. He recently attempted to head off fund-raising criticism by saying he'd be careful about accepting money from contributors in search of state business or friendly treatment at the hands of state regulators.

That effort seems doomed to failure by definition, however. Big-money contributors contribute precisely because they have interests with the government in Annapolis as well as in Washington.

With all its pitfalls, the 1998 election has a much better than even chance of being quite entertaining.

Glendening appears certain to face a stinging review of controversies involving enhanced pension benefits he and his aides stood to collect when his tenure as Prince George's County executive ended, by the $100 million budget deficit he left the county and by a run of fund-raising stumbles involving contributors who had interests pending before the state.

So weakened was he by these events that many Democrats openly yearned to see 3rd District Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin oppose him. Cardin declined.

But another Democrat or two may yet enter the race. Former Washington Redskins football player Raymond F. Schoenke indicates he will, and his friends say he is willing to spend as much as $2 million of his own money, made in an insurance career.

Schoenke, who comes from Hawaii, would run as a businessman-liberal, a 1960s-style civil-rights crusader who would bring a forceful presence to the race.

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger tells associates he would consider a draft if Rehrmann has not caught on by the end of the 1998 General Assembly session in the spring.

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