Glendening needs time, luck to recover from his stumble Distance to election can mend damage done by mishandling Schaefer bid for comptroller

July 12, 1998|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

By many accounts, Gov. Parris N. Glendening made political hash of his duty to choose a temporary replacement for the late Louis L. Goldstein, the state comptroller and political legend who died July 3.

The governor may have squandered a unique opportunity to appear statesmanlike, acting for his detractors like a manipulative pol who can't be trusted to stick with his closest allies.

But those who have watched Glendening's career say he has always been one of the luckiest of politicians, a man who sometimes digs a hole for himself but always climbs out smiling.

Last week, he may have given himself his sternest test.

He put live political ammunition in the hands of opponents, Democrat and Republican, who are eager to use it as much as possible in this year's primary and general elections.

Former Montgomery County Congressman Michael D. Barnes -- Glendening's campaign chairman -- was his choice to replace Goldstein.

But Barnes was shouldered aside by former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, whose interest in the comptroller's post had been ignored by Glendening until an outpouring of support made Schaefer look like the better candidate.

Out of office for almost four years, Schaefer was back in power.

Glendening ended up looking opportunistic, inept and weak -- especially in Montgomery County, where Barnes is still revered by many.

Barnes might have vouched for the governor among those who resent Glendening's support for construction of the Ravens football stadium, his generous aid to Baltimore schools and his zeal at fund raising.

Instead, Democratic and Republican challengers alike see a troubling tendency in the Barnes affair: that Glendening changes his positions to suit his political needs.

"When he names his campaign chairman watchdog of the state treasury," said Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the leading GOP candidate, "it looks like he's a lapdog, not a watchdog."

But some of the severest criticism came from an ally:

"The worst possible scenario was picking a Montgomery guy and then dumping him," said Del. Cheryl C. Kagan of Montgomery. "He dissed our guy."

Resentment rubbed raw

Barnes, she said, would have helped Glendening among those in her county who thought the former congressman would have given them a representative in state government's highest councils.

And to have him replaced by Schaefer just rubs that resentment raw, Kagan said.

"This is the Schaefer who embarrassed the state," she said, "who called the Eastern Shore an outhouse, endorsed the Republican George Bush and never gave Montgomery the time of day."

But Glendening may be blessed by the lack of public focus this early in his re-election campaign.

"It doesn't look good now," said Herbert C. Smith, a political scientist at Western Maryland College.

"It doesn't make Parris look very good. But it will probably look a lot better in October."

What happened last week, despite the dramatic return of Schaefer, may be largely grist for insiders.

"People who aren't political junkies don't look at the process," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat. "When they concentrate, they'll look at who the candidates are -- not how they happened to get there."

Short-term voter memory

Said another Baltimore Democrat, Del. Maggie L. McIntosh: "The voter's memory on something like this is very short-term, particularly when they feel in general that the outcome was Glendening picked the right candidate for the job."

Moreover, some may even be sympathetic, believing that Glendening deserves a break because he was forced to act in an impossibly short time. Goldstein died July 3, three days before the July 6 filing deadline.

"I would say to those who might say, 'Well, this could have been handled better': Well, you weren't there," said Barnes, ever the loyal Democratic soldier even upon his departure.

Added Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat: "I don't think he's [Glendening's] pretending he wanted Schaefer all along. But like a lot of people, when they review a situation, they have second thoughts.

"He cut his losses and moved on. That's been part of his salvation is that he knows when to move on."

But for now at least, the governor's assertions that he had ended up with the best possible ticket ring hollow, said former state Del. Timothy F. Maloney, a Glendening opponent and supporter of the Democratic primary challenger, Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann.

"The electorate didn't just fall off the turnip truck," he said.

"People over the age of 8 saw what happened, know why it happened and what the truth is. Moments like this provide a window into character."

Even Glendening's supporters, including Rawlings, acknowledge that the governor was not anxious to share the stage with his predecessor.

Beyond Glendening's personal unease with that prospect, there something inherently awkward about having two governors on the Board of Public Works, which handles all the state's day-to-day business.

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