PORT TOBACCO -- At the old courthouse here, nestled serenely behind the post office and a keno and beer store, Elaine Racey offers a brief history of her town, keeps an eye on her granddaughter Sarah and speaks frankly about this year's elections.
"I'm not very happy with the governor we have," she says. "I don't feel he does enough for the smaller counties."
While she talks, her Charles County neighbor Marie Duffield, a newly minted Democrat, listens with barely controlled frustration.
"Drives me crazy," says Duffield, engaged in her latest political campaign, an effort to get Rex Coffey elected county sheriff. Duffield and others say Gov. Parris N. Glendening has paid more attention to their county and Southern Maryland than any governor in memory.
But, she says philosophically, it takes awhile for the word to get around. Election campaigns can help, she says, but they usually turn into a battle between partisans shouting at each other across a broad congregation of the barely informed.
She and Coffey have knocked on 5,000 doors, and their conclusion is that Glendening enjoys considerable new support, enough to reverse his 1994 deficit in Charles County, where the Republican candidate, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, won by a wide margin: 15,737 to 10,074.
To find out what's on the minds of Racey, Duffield and other residents of this largely rural county of about 120,000, a Sun reporter spent a few days recently listening to voters talk about their concerns.
There are many: growth in controversial developments such as Chapman's Landing northwest of Port Tobacco on the Potomac River; where and when to build a bypass; whether to permit slot machine gambling; the value of increasing taxes on tobacco products grown here; those seamy stories emanating from nearby Washington; and how to guard small towns like Port Tobacco and La Plata from the encroaching strip malls.
At Casey Jones Pub near the railroad tracks in downtown La Plata, the fervently conservative Paul V. Facchina predicts that 1998 will be a boom year for citizen participation in Charles County.
"People down here are not happy," says Facchina, who owns a construction company. "All the political nonsense is not high on their radar screens, but it's on their minds. It's simmering. They'll be out to vote and they'll be out in droves."
What's going on in Washington with President Clinton -- allegations of a sexual encounter with Monica Lewinsky and special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr's Whitewater land deal investigation -- deeply disturbs Marylanders, Facchina is certain.
"Depending on what Starr does," he says, "the Democrats will be seen by September as the party of corruption. The thug in the White House," he says, is the main reason. Glendening will be damaged by a backlash, he predicts.
Charles is changing
But, once again, Duffield disagrees. Charles is changing, she thinks, and she offers herself as Exhibit A. She felt her political views changing slowly and then, six months ago, she had an epiphany.
"I'd go to a party with Republicans and realize I'd have to leave before I had a stroke," she says. The GOP, she decided, had forgotten that government should be about solving problems and serving people. She changed her registration from Republican to Democrat -- accomplishing that conversion with the assistance of her mother, Dorothy Duffield, the Charles County election board chief.
Facchina and Marie Duffield resent the suggestion that 1998 will be a year of abysmally low voter turnout in Maryland.
But the basis for that conclusion is not difficult to find.
In the verdantly suburban Quailwood development between La Plata and Port Tobacco, Mark Thompson pauses over repair work on his spotless white Jeep to admit that he's unlikely to vote this year. He dislikes what he sees as suffocating intrusion by government.
"I don't need government telling me what to do on more and more things," the 42-year-old computer programmer says. If he wants to smoke, sail without a life jacket or gamble, he says, he should be able to without some politician getting in the way.
But if he stays at home on election day, it won't be a protest. He's simply not involved.
Nor is Bill Kerns, 66, a retired plasterer who moved to Waldorf from Washington 15 years ago. He can't remember the last governor he voted for. Politicians, he says, double-crossed him once too often -- said one thing, did another.
A member of the Mall Walkers Association of St. Charles Centre, Kerns may have to explain himself to H. P. "Dutch" Detwiler, 77, the association's president. With 3,000 senior citizen members, Detwiler could serve as a modern ward boss, an opinion leader among seniors, who are among the most reliable of voters.
On a trip to Dover Downs in Delaware recently, a bus load of Charles County seniors talked about the inconveniences to them -- and economic losses to Maryland -- because Glendening refuses to consider allowing slots at Maryland's racetracks.