Office seekers court keybackers But few agree on true value of endorsements

May 09, 1998|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

Almost no one thinks they mean much in the long run, but every candidate wants as many as possible. Endorsements, that is -- the Beanie Babies of modern politics.

Every office seeker collects them feverishly, hoping that support from a union, an elder statesmen or a popular elected official will mean votes on Election Day.

But are those hopes warranted?

If the Maryland State Teachers Association endorses Gov. Parris N. Glendening today as expected, it will not come as a surprise; the governor has had the teachers' support sewn up for years. But it does mean that the 48,000-strong statewide union will put its money and hundreds of energetic volunteers to work for him.

"The only time an endorsement means something," says Edgar Silver -- a lobbyist, former judge and former state legislator who has watched Maryland elections for 50 years -- "is if the person or organization has an active political machine that works at the street level."

A case in point is Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's endorsement of Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann's campaign for governor. Schmoke's support came with the promise of real follow-through -- by Larry S. Gibson, a street-level organizer with many victories to his credit.

Schmoke's support helped Rehrmann first in the realm of perception -- and news media coverage -- because he was one of Glendening's most important allies in 1994, when Glendening was relatively unknown in Baltimore. Schmoke's high-level defection to Rehrmann and his emotional speech from the steps City Hall gave the story legs in the media, just what her struggling campaign needed.

But as mayor, Schmoke also has fund-raising potential among businessmen who might covet contracts with the city. On May 26, Schmoke will put that financial power at Rehrmann's service with a $1,000-a-ticket fund-raising party at the Baltimore Convention Center.

The Maryland political world now awaits the endorsement decisions of three county executives: Douglas M. Duncan of Montgomery, C. A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger of Baltimore County and Wayne K. Curry of Prince George's. The first two are likely to back Glendening, though neither is likely to do so with passion. The governor has been generous to them with state funds, though Duncan was publicly looking for an alternative to Glendening last year.

All three could be important in the election, but Curry is the wild card, the one most likely to support the challenger. Friendly with Rehrmann and a Schmoke ally, he runs Glendening's home county, one of the three major jurisdictions that gave Glendening his narrow victory in 1994, by 5,993 votes out of 1.4 million cast.

Importance in Baltimore

Personal endorsements probably mean more in Baltimore than anywhere else in Maryland. A statement of support in May can mean that the candidate's name ends up on the palm cards -- portable ballots with a political club's choices that are distributed to voters as they arrive at polling places for the primary election in September.

Though a citywide machine run by an organization or a single person is little more than a memory in most big cities, including Baltimore, its nerve endings still quiver in many districts on Election Day, particularly when stimulated by money. In one 1994 race, a statewide candidate won every Baltimore precinct except the two home precincts of his opponent and 19 others where the winning candidate's name was not on the palm cards.

Few voters will pull the Rehrmann lever simply because the mayor of Baltimore tells them to, but in addition to news coverage, Schmoke's embrace brought the promise of continuing help where it will count.

Though some critics say their power is largely myth, Schmoke and Gibson have had a formidable organization.

Schmoke endorsement

The money Schmoke raises will be available for television advertisements, to pay workers for literature drops, and to cover printing costs and other expenses incurred by the candidates Rehrmann may wish to run with in the city. In short, Gibson says he hopes to do for Rehrmann what he claims he did for Glendening four years ago.

"Before Kurt endorsed him, Parris Glendening was nowhere. Baltimoreans did not know Glendening," Gibson recalled. "After that, on the strength of that, he won the primary here comfortably against two Baltimore area officials of some considerable stature."

Still, Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University in Rhode Island, observes that political endorsements can have a downside: If candidates appear to be under the control of their endorsers, they can lose the appeal in appearing independent. Or other aspects of the endorsements could prove damaging.

Some contend that the Schmoke-Gibson endorsement might have hurt Rehrmann, in part because so much emphasis was put on her support of slot machines at Maryland racetracks.

Schmoke is pursuing a controversial hotel-construction project in East Baltimore, and his housing department is about to be investigated by the federal government.

The slots issue

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