Glendening struggles to connect with voters Low poll numbers belie popular policies

March 29, 1998|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

Parris N. Glendening is poised to stride out of the 1998 General Assembly session with plenty to brag about, but the essential paradox of his first term as governor remains.

While his policies appear to be in line with the desires of many Marylanders, as measured in public opinion surveys, his performance in office seems to leave them cold. Last year, after a similarly productive legislative session, his approval rating fell a point or two.

And this scandal-plagued Assembly session may not have helped.

"The substantive record - what the legislature and the governor have done jointly - is a progressive, smart message," said a Democratic legislator from Baltimore who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But the leadership concerns about Glendening are worse after this 90 days."

Worse, he argued, because one of the governor's close political allies, former Sen. Larry Young of Baltimore, was expelled for ethical infractions.

Dour judgments of this sort, along with the poll ratings, have brought Glendening several opponents in this year's Democratic gubernatorial primary. Similarly, the poll figures give Republicans their best hope for winning the governor's mansion since the mid-1960s.

Glendening's campaign advisers say they are unconcerned about any backlash from the ethics embarrassments. "It gives the opponents who have nothing good to say about themselves an opportunity to say something bad about us," said Glendening's campaign manager, Tim Phillips.

He and other Democrats, of course, believe that the value of keeping Glendening will be apparent to voters when they are confronted with the possibility of changing horses in the middle of rollicking good times.

The economy gets better and better. As a result of revenue surpluses, Glendening has been able to hand out an extraordinarily long list of loans and grants for local projects that matter to voters.

"People are smart enough to see where their bread is buttered," said state Sen. Ida G. Ruben, who represents Montgomery County, the largest and perhaps most politically active of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions.

Yet, even in Montgomery, the polls show, Glendening has had difficulty establishing anything like a personal relationship with voters. His decision to put $270 million in state money behind two professional football stadiums and a recent decision to delay construction of a long-awaited highway project represent election-year hurdles to be overcome.

In his dealings with much of Maryland, Glendening has seemed the political opposite of President Clinton: The governor's popularity resists the updraft of good times, while Clinton's soars above a whirlwind of scandal. Clinton's charm has given him several political lives, while Glendening's failure to connect threatens to overwhelm the power of incumbency.

Nevertheless, he drives ever forward, meeting and greeting across the state, announcing initiatives and grants, and courting support. Most of the Prince George's delegates recently endorsed the former county executive, and he's courting everyone else who will listen to his appeal.

Since the upheaval early in the session, the Assembly has turned resolutely toward perfecting and passing the legislative package introduced by the Glendening administration, including:

A bill to provide health insurance for low-income children.

A bill to provide scholarship aid to talented students in science, engineering, computers and technology.

A bill to control farm runoff in an attempt to limit the growth of vegetation linked to outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria in the Chesapeake Bay. While the House of Delegates has passed a weaker version of the governor's bill, it remains likely that the Assembly will agree on legislation strong enough for the governor to claim victory.

A $16.5 billion budget with ambitious new spending for local school systems and colleges and universities.

Glendening has also backed a proposals to give Marylanders faster tax relief, a pension enhancement urged by teachers and state employees, and changes in Maryland law to help the state recoup money it has spent treating smoking-related diseases.

With the 10 percent tax cut he championed last year, his anti-sprawl Smart Growth legislation and his commitment to public school construction, Glendening will have a more than respectable record to run on.

Some voters - particularly in Baltimore - may even applaud his decision to back construction of the stadiums.

"It obviously is" a good record to run on, Glendening said in an interview. "But these are the very things we ran on last time. I said we'd do these things, and we have. It's very exciting."

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