Sauerbrey's 1994 message fades in 1998

The Economy

March 16, 1998|By JAY HANCOCK

PARRIS N. Glendening's stumbles and unpopularity have supposedly yielded even odds for Ellen R. Sauerbrey in the Maryland governor's race this year.

A Mason-Dixon poll shows the two tied. Glendening, a Democrat his first term, is painted as a lone cripple in a national herd of fleet, robust incumbents. If any incumbent can lose in this luminous day of low unemployment and low inflation, "He's the one," Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman told the Wall Street Journal.

Sauerbrey, who almost beat Glendening in 1994, is a conservative Republican who favors tax cuts and further reform of business regulations. Her close challenge last time, along with Glendening's problems now, have prompted suffering Republican hearts to beat with anticipation of their first Maryland governorship since Spiro Agnew in the 1960s.

But Maryland has shifted since the last election, and recent polls focusing on economics and policy -- not political personalities -- suggest that Sauerbrey would have a tough time in November.

This state isn't what it was in 1994. It's what it was in 1986.

Less than 5 percent of the work force is unemployed. Tax tills are overflowing. Companies are hiring. Spending by government, Maryland's single most important industry, is stable. Nobody's worried any more that "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap, corporate America's arch-downsizer, will come in and re-engineer federal employees.

Fifty-seven percent of Maryland companies surveyed recently by the Maryland Business Research Partnership at the University of Baltimore planned on hiring this year, and three-fourths expected sales increases.

Forty-four percent of the companies viewed Maryland as a favorable place to do business last year, up from 35 percent in 1996, said Richard Clinch, the partnership's program director.

Sure, more than half the companies withheld "favorable" votes. But a 44 percent approval rating for the business climate might not be material for a Republican revolution in a Democratic state. And this is still a Democratic state, as a poll by the University of Baltimore's Schaefer Center for Public Policy makes clear.

Now that Maryland employment is growing again after the long recession of the early 1990s, voters seem to be shedding their economic anxiety and reverting to concerns about quality of life, environment and human welfare.

Sixty-three percent of those polled by the Schaefer Center think the state is "going in the right direction." More than half want to use Maryland's budget surplus to boost school spending. Only 18 percent think it should pay for a tax cut.

Few favor spending cuts.

Two-thirds approve of Glendening's "Smart Growth" policies of channeling development into areas that already have roads, sewers and schools. Almost three-fourths favor regulation to fight Pfiesteria contamination and other Chesapeake Bay pollution. Half say they're better off now than four years ago.

And the percentage rating state government "good" at solving problems is the highest it's been since 1992, the Schaefer Center said.

Sauerbrey's brush with victory came in an extraordinary year, when the Contract with America was current, when Republicans gained ground across the country, when even titanic Democratic incumbents such as New York's Mario M. Cuomo and Texas' Ann W. Richards fell.

Glendening's situation isn't good, and it may get worse if ethics scandals in Annapolis rumble closer to his door. But if Sauerbrey couldn't float into the governor's mansion on 1994's flood tide of discontent, she must toil the harder now at its ebb.

Pub Date: 3/16/98

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