Sauerbrey gives Steele boost in comptroller bid But her endorsement stirs protest among GOP conservatives

July 15, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

GREENBELT -- Michael S. Steele, chairman of the Prince George's County Republican Party, emerged from the pack seeking the GOP nomination for comptroller yesterday with the enthusiastic endorsement of gubernatorial front-runner Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

Sauerbrey hailed the 39-year-old conservative activist as a man who "took on the establishment and won" when he led a 1996 referendum campaign to preserve the county property tax cap known as TRIM.

She added that Steele "has been in the forefront of recruiting minorities to the party of Abraham Lincoln."

By bringing Steele onto her slate, Sauerbrey may be aiming to make inroads among black voters, who overwhelmingly shunned her 1994 campaign for governor.

GOP elected officials attending the news conference said Sauerbrey's choice of Steele gives the party a legitimate chance of seizing the office held by Louis L. Goldstein for 40 years -- even if the Democrats nominate former Gov. William Donald Schaefer to succeed him.

"Michael has a track record of overcoming big odds successfully," said state Sen. Martin G. Madden, a moderate Republican who represents Howard and Prince George's counties.

But by taking sides against six other Republican candidates for comptroller, including 1994 GOP nominee Timothy Mayberry, Sauerbrey has apparently exacerbated dissatisfaction among her core conservative supporters.

As of yesterday, none of the other GOP candidates had dropped out, and some Republican activists said Sauerbrey's endorsement does not guarantee Steele victory in the Sept. 15 primary.

Anger was running especially high among supporters of Mayberry, the only Republican candidate to file before the popular Goldstein died unexpectedly July 3. "She's just abandoned all her grass roots, and you just don't do that," said Vince Dellaposta, a member of the Washington County Central Committee. "I think she's going to be surprised at the groundswell in the grass roots that Tim Mayberry does have."

Mayberry said yesterday that he would remain in the race and hold on to the backing of many Sauerbrey voters.

"The Sauerbrey organization does not support this [choice of Steele], and they adamantly disagree with her," said Mayberry, a Boonsboro banker, who garnered 39 percent of the vote in his run against Goldstein.

But her spokesman Jim Dornan expressed confidence that Sauerbrey's loyalists will agree with the decision to break with her normal practice of declining to make endorsements in primaries.

"She has a great deal of faith in her supporters, and her supporters have a great deal of faith in her," he said.

With Sauerbrey's political embrace yesterday, the little-known Steele appeared to be looking beyond the primary to a generational challenge to Schaefer, a titan of Maryland politics for three decades.

"We deserve somebody who is not seeking office merely as a way to combat boredom," Steele said of the 76-year-old Schaefer, who has admitted chafing at the inactivity of &r retirement.

"The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans," said Steele, borrowing from John F. Kennedy. "Well, Maryland, it's time to pass that torch."

First bid for political office

Steele, a securities lawyer who has never before run for office, said he gives voters "a choice between the old style of machine politics and a new style of leadership."

Steele, a resident of Largo, is an anti-abortion Roman Catholic who once studied for the priesthood. A dynamic speaker, his style would contrast with Schaefer's rambling, idiosyncratic but often endearing oratory.

Steele is a brother-in-law of boxer Mike Tyson.

According to his campaign biography, Steele is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University and Georgetown Law School. He is counsel and assistant secretary of the Mills Corp., a Virginia real estate investment company.

One item on Steele's resume that could emerge as an issue is his role in the successful campaign against the 1996 Prince George's initiative that would have repealed TRIM.

Prince George's officials, including County Executive Wayne K. Curry, contended that TRIM was hamstringing the county's ability to raise money for education and other needs, but grass-roots opposition led by Steele overcame a well-funded repeal effort.

Putting blame on Glendening

At yesterday's news conference, Steele joined Sauerbrey in blaming Gov. Parris N. Glendening for failing to provide adequate state aid for school construction in Prince George's.

But Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs of the House Appropriations Committee, said TRIM is one of the major factors preventing the county from raising local matching funds needed to qualify for state construction aid.

"It's hypocritical on his part, and he's not being truthful," Rawlings said of Steele. "In fairness, Governor Glendening has done an extraordinary job in working with the citizens of Prince George's County."

But Steele called criticism of the tax cap a "boogeyman argument."

"TRIM has absolutely nothing to do with school construction money," he said.

Other contenders

To win the GOP primary, Steele will have to defeat Mayberry, 1990 comptroller candidate Larry M. Epstein, executive Eugene R. Zarwell, Anne Arundel County official Ardath Cade, business book author Jeffrey C. Hooke and Robert W. Kearns. Zarwell and Cade also said yesterday that they intend to stay in the race. The others could not be reached for comment.

On the Democratic side, Schaefer faces a challenge from Baltimore City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt and five lesser-known candidates.

Pub Date: 7/15/98

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