Election forum in Columbia stirs few Challengers speak, but no-show governor appears club favorite

May 14, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

The primary election is four months away and only two dozen people turned out for the Columbia Democratic Club's candidates forum last night, but Democrats Eileen M. Rehrmann and Raymond F. Schoenke Jr. were there working hard for some support.

Rehrmann, the Harford County executive, and Schoenke, a Montgomery County insurance company owner, leveled polite but pointed barbs at the record of their main opponent, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who didn't attend but sent a stand-in.

Rehrmann called herself the "strongest" candidate to defeat the expected Republican nominee, Ellen R. Sauerbrey. Schoenke, making his first run for elective office, repeatedly questioned Glendening's leadership and integrity.

"I believe the people of Maryland want a person whose word is his bond," Schoenke said. "Our governor has a problem with his word."

Last night's forum in a community center in Columbia was the first time in this campaign that two of the three leading Democratic candidates had gotten together at an event.

But between now and Election Day, they will trek to dozens of such events across the state.

For the challengers, it is important time in front of Democratic activists, the kind of people who volunteer for campaigns and influence other voters.

"Although you get just three minutes, you have the opportunity for people to hear you, see what you have to say," said Rehrmann. "There are people who will leave saying, 'Hey, Eileen Rehrmann is the one I want to support for governor.' "

There is little doubt that in July, when it makes its selection, the Columbia Democratic Club will endorse Glendening as it did before the 1994 election, members said.

But Rehrmann and Schoenke put in appearances anyway.

"Part of it is to reach out, touch, meet people, let them have a sense of who I am," said Schoenke. "Some of them are already aligned with other candidates, but it makes them realize I'm a viable alternative."

Glendening chose to skip last night's event -- although he will be the main speaker at a much larger gathering of Howard County Democrats tomorrow night. His campaign advisers are planning to keep him out of many such head-to-head confrontations with his challengers.

While Glendening might have locked up the Columbia club's official endorsement, some members will indeed support other candidates, said Jim Kraft, a Howard County attorney and president of the group.

"Some of these people have been disenchanted with some of the things the governor has done," Kraft said. "Maybe they could turn some of them around."

Glendening, who sent a key political adviser, Maryland Secretary of State John T. Willis, hopes to use Democratic club endorsements to bolster his grass-roots organization.

"You've got to have those armies out in the field doing the important work that gets people to the polls and gets them to vote for your candidate," said Peter Hamm, a Glendening campaign spokesman. "Local Democratic clubs supply a terrific pool of volunteers and activists."

During last night's forum, Willis barely acknowledged the criticisms tossed his way by Rehrmann and Schoenke.

He urged club members to look at the record compiled by Glendening and his lieutenant governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend -- including an increase in state aid to education, stronger environmental laws and gun control.

"Democrats throughout the state of Maryland can really be proud of the Glendening-Townsend administration and the record they have achieved," Willis said.

Pub Date: 5/14/98

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