Sauerbrey balancing money and politics Oliver North raising funds and potentially troublesome questions

Campaign 1998

March 23, 1998|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF Sun news researcher Robert Schrott contributed to this article. lTC

At the Republican National Convention in San Diego two years ago, Ellen R. Sauerbrey was a guest on a talk radio program with host Oliver L. North, the Iran-contra figure, unsuccessful candidate for U.S. Senate in Virginia and fund-raising star of the GOP's conservative wing.

"Let me know what I can do to help you," North told the Maryland Republican Party's 1994 gubernatorial candidate, who already was planning this year's re-run of that race.

What North can do, it turns out, is raise big money -- and potentially troublesome questions.

About 150 paying guests are expected at a $125-a-head fund-raiser for Sauerbrey tonight at a private home in Annapolis. Some will pose for pictures with the retired Marine lieutenant colonel for $500 a snap.

After his conviction for lying to Congress about the Reagan administration's effort to assist the contras in Nicaragua, North has become a figure of controversy as well as an extraordinary magnet for campaign funds. He raised $20.3 million during his 1994 Senate race and, since then, lesser sums for a variety of Republican office-seekers.

Sauerbrey's decision to invite him, though, makes very public the balancing act she faces in her effort to defeat Gov. Parris N. Glendening this year.

She must unify her party, reach out to Democrats -- and raise $4 million for the campaign.

"This campaign wants to send a very strong message that people on both wings of the party, running the full gamut of the political spectrum, will be welcome," she said.

But North's appearance tonight could remind voters of charges hurled relentlessly at her during the 1994 campaign: assertions that she is a rigid, movement conservative bent on turning Maryland into a laboratory for experimenting with deep tax cuts, radical reduction of government services and regulatory reform that would ignore worker safety and pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

North's visit has drawn sharp fire.

"My understanding is that he's the charter member of the 'Felons for Ellen Club,' " said Tim Phillips, Glendening's campaign manager. North's felony convictions were overturned by a federal appeals court, which held that he was immune from prosecution because he had agreed to testify before a congressional committee.

Foe sees symbolism

Phillips moved quickly to the symbolism of the North appearance. "By bringing him in, she's reverting to her true colors," he said. "The kinder, gentler Sauerbrey she's been touting is being undermined. Some people will do anything to raise a bunch of money."

Sauerbrey's GOP primary opponent, Charles I. Ecker, the Howard County executive, delivered an equally derisive critique through his campaign manager, Geyer Wise.

"We see all this attempted moderation and then Oliver North," Wise said. "Is there a 'for sale' sign around her neck?"

Sauerbrey acknowledges that raising enough money to be competitive against a well-financed incumbent Democrat is a fundamental objective of her evening with North. At the moment, Glendening is out of the fund-raising arena -- prohibited by state law from raising money until the legislative session ends April 13. Meanwhile, Sauerbrey is spending much of her time on the phone to potential contributors.

Her fund-raising helpmate, North, was convicted in 1989 of three federal crimes: aiding in the obstruction of Congress, accepting illegal gratuities, and destroying documents related to arms sales to Iran to finance the illegal contra war. He was fined $150,000 and ordered to perform 1,200 hours of community service. A year later, his convictions were overturned.

Nonetheless, Sauerbrey and other Republicans are pleased to have him in the state for a night.

"I'm not having this fund-raiser to pass judgment on Ollie North, every nuance of his record," she said. "I don't know every nuance of Ollie North's record. I think he is a legitimate figure within our party, who has run for U.S. Senate and has a significant following and represents one of the parts of the big tent."

Added Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican: "The fights North has been through draw a lot of passionate supporters, so you allow them to help you. People are sophisticated enough to know that doesn't mean you buy into all their views."

GOP stars offer support

Indeed, North joins a cavalcade of Republican stars visiting Maryland to support Sauerbrey's second bid for governor.

"What really governs all this," Sauerbrey said, "is that we want people from all points on the spectrum to find something that is attractive to them."

The relatively liberal former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld has been to Maryland recently as a Sauerbrey backer and fund-raiser. Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin and Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson have offered to help. Former New York congressman and 1996 vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp, Michigan Gov. John Engler and Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad have as well.

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