Looking for an issue

November 09, 1997|By Barry Rascovar

REPUBLICANS received great news from voters around the ccountry last Tuesday. But that message may not translate well for Maryland Republicans next year.

Victory in Virginia! Victory in New Jersey! Victory in Democratic New York City!

But if you look closely at the reasons for those GOP wins, it is tough to draw a connecting line to Maryland.

In Virginia, the telling issue was repeal of a detested car tax. In New Jersey, the cutting issue was exorbitant auto insurance rates. And in the Big Apple, the mayor's success in vastly cutting crime and grime carried the day.

These issues won't work for Republicans here. That does not bode well for Ellen R. Sauerbrey (or the other GOP candidate for governor, long-shot contender Charles I. Ecker).

Of overriding concern is the state of the economy. It is good -- not booming by any means but producing new jobs and slightly higher earnings. The governor and Democratic legislators passed a five-year tax-cut plan last spring. There is plenty of surplus money to satisfy county executives with more school aid.

In an era of upbeat economic news, Maryland Republicans need a sharply defined issue that resonates so strongly with voters that they forsake the status quo.

It isn't there yet, a fact that worries some GOP leaders.

Tax cut?

How about renewing Mrs. Sauerbrey's tax-cut proposal of 1994? The governor beat her to the punch. All she can say now is, ''I could have done it better.''

How about railing about the Democrats' failure to fight crime? Sorry, the crime rate is dropping in most jurisdictions.

What about decrying the plight of education? State educators are already working on that problem, and Democrats will be directing more money to public schools next session.

Why not turn moralistic and accuse Democrats of pandering to gambling interests? Not a good move, given the governor's political checkmate in coming out against slot machines.

That doesn't leave Mrs. Sauerbrey with much room for a pro-active campaign. So far, she has been mainly reactive.

She had to back away from her initial statement on the Pfiesteria fish-kill, looking foolish in the process. This past week, she again sounded unsure when commenting on new voting machines for Baltimore City.

Instead of taking credit for the move (in light of her court challenge alleging manipulation of voting results in 1994), Mrs. Sauerbrey voiced concern over the new machines and even praised the same old machines her followers had excoriated for their flaws three years ago.

Republicans have to do better next summer when the campaign for nearly all state and local offices counts.

While the GOP may have trouble finding a defining message in state races, it should have less trouble in local races. Suburban Maryland is transforming itself into solid Republican territory.

A decade ago, Democrats ran most local county councils. Now Republicans do. Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties could be even more solidly GOP after 1998. So could Baltimore County -- except for the popular Democratic county executive, Dutch Ruppersberger.

Clearly, suburban voters like what their local GOP candidates espouse. But Republicans have failed to make a strong enough case for statewide candidates.

Local government is about tending to constituent complaints and resolving problems. It is about finding practical solutions, about compromising and making the bureaucracy work. Party labels are irrelevant, but the Republicans' conservative approach to budgets and spending appeal to local voters.

Maryland Republicans, though, feel that party labels count in statewide races.

In fact, voters are uneasy about turning the state over to unproven candidates who pledge to dismantle government. The electorate may want to see government improved and slimmed, but not obliterated.

The trick is to elevate Republicans' solid local reputation to the state level. People need to feel that Mrs. Sauerbrey or Mr. Ecker will be practical, hands-on governors who will fix what is broken and keep the ship of state on course.

But people also need to have a good reason to replace the incumbent. Republicans are still searching for that magic bullet.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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