Sauerbrey selects GOP moderate Baltimore County attorney will be her running mate

Party leaders praise choice

Bennett supports abortion rights, some gun control

Campaign 1998

June 17, 1998|By Craig Timberg and William F. Zorzi Jr. | Craig Timberg and William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey has reached across ideological lines to pick Richard D. Bennett, a former U.S. attorney popular with GOP moderates, to be her running mate in her bid for governor, sources said last night.

In choosing Bennett, 50, she passed on Paul H. Rappaport -- her 1994 running mate favored by many grass-roots supporters -- and Prince George's County GOP Chairman Michael Steele, an African-American who might have bolstered her efforts to reach out to black voters.

Bennett differs from the 60-year-old Sauerbrey on some key issues, supporting abortion rights and some gun control. He was a longtime ally of former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who lost to Sauerbrey in the bitter 1994 GOP primary for governor.

The selection of Bennett also failed to fulfill a one-time Sauerbrey priority of picking a running mate from the Washington suburbs, the base of Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Bennett, like Sauerbrey, lives in Baltimore County.

And Bennett was recently involved in a Washington controversy as chief counsel to a committee led by U.S. Rep. Dan Burton, the Indiana congressman whose zealous efforts to damage President Clinton embarrassed some in the Republican Party. Bennett had decided to leave the committee.

But Maryland party leaders last night praised the selection, lauding Bennett's law enforcement credentials and his political experience. He unsuccessfully challenged Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. in 1994.

"Outstanding choice," said state GOP Chairwoman Joyce Lyons Terhes. "He's run before. He's pulled in decent votes. I just think he brings tremendous talent to the ticket."

Bennett did not return phone messages yesterday.

Yesterday's decision ended months of difficult, sometimes contentious debate in the Sauerbrey camp. At least two prominent candidates removed themselves from consideration during the long delay.

In the final weeks, with the list narrowed to three candidates, each came to represent a portion of the electorate vital to her election hopes. Rappaport represented her conservative core, Steele represented blacks and other traditionally Democratic voters that Sauerbrey is trying to reach out to.

And Bennett, whose name emerged in the past month or so, was a favorite of party leaders eager to heal wounds left from 1994, ZTC when Bentley's defeat signaled a weakening in the moderate wing of Maryland's GOP.

That, combined with Bennett's long resume, seemed to clinch his selection.

"He's got credentials, big-league political credentials," said Baltimore GOP Chairman David Blumberg. "If he was a Democrat in this state, he would have already been elected to statewide office."

Even so, some conservative activists -- both within and without the campaign -- are certain to be disappointed by Sauerbrey's choice.

Guy Sabatino of the Republican Club of Maryland, a group that says it represents Sauerbrey's most fervently conservative supporters, said the search for a running mate had lasted so long that bad feelings may persist.

"I just have a real sick feeling in the pit of my stomach over the whole thing," said Sabatino, who called Bennett a favorite of the "ultra-liberals." "This is an Ellen Sauerbrey I've never seen before, an indecisive Ellen Sauerbrey, and it really hurts me."

Bennett is a moderate Republican who is a fierce campaigner and has the ability to raise money, as was evident in his 1994 race against Curran.

As the state party's best hope in seven decades to elect an attorney general, Bennett fell short of beating Curran but captured an impressive 46 percent of the vote. The race was a surprisingly combative one, with a negative tone set by Bennett.

Bennett's political history dates to 1982, when he took on then-Del. John A. Pica Jr. for a Northeast Baltimore state Senate seat. Pica won handily in the district, where Democrats outnumbered Republicans 6 to 1, but Bennett's campaigning impressed many in the party.

By the mid-1980s, Bennett moved his family to Baltimore County and was elected chairman of the Republican Central Committee there. He played a key role in helping moderate Republicans led by Bentley wrest control of the state GOP from the right wing of the party.

Sauerbrey's selection impressed some outside political observers, including Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at Western Maryland College.

"Bennett is absolutely the best choice," Smith said. "He's got an impressive resume. He's run before. He provides entree to the Baltimore legal community and maybe to some money."

Pub Date: 6/17/98

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