Pratt has nothing to lose in race for comptroller Experience may help in future campaigns

Campaign 1998

July 19, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Just past noon, hungry and hurrying between meetings, Joan M. Pratt stops at Lexington Market. Not to pick up a gourmet sandwich or even a piece of fruit. She never gets a chance to eat as she stations herself outside the busy lunchtime spot.

"Hi, I'm Joan Pratt," she greets a lawyer carrying out a salad container. "How have you been?" she asks an old family friend selling newspapers. "I need you to vote for me," she tells three hospital workers leaving the public market in downtown Baltimore.

Her lunch errand marks the beginning of what promises to be a daunting and, by most standards, impossible campaign to succeed the legendary Louis L. Goldstein as Maryland's comptroller. Former Gov. William Donald Schaefer has emerged as the consensus Democratic candidate for the post left vacant by Goldstein's sudden death July 3.

Schaefer's surprise candidacy forced a handful of lesser-known Democrats to hastily withdraw, including Gov. Parris N. Glendening's choice for the job. Pratt was undeterred.

Three years into her first term as Baltimore's comptroller, she defied conventional wisdom by staying in the Democratic primary race with Maryland's senior political statesman.

Why would Pratt, barely a household name in Baltimore, take on Schaefer, who enjoys near-universal recognition across Maryland after almost 40 years in public life?

Many political leaders believe her ambition has less to do with the state Capitol than Baltimore City Hall. They suggest that Pratt, a poised, 46-year-old accountant, is campaigning chiefly to build a following for the future. She is widely seen as a likely mayoral candidate next year, especially if Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke chooses not to seek a fourth term.

"It better positions her for a run for mayor," says Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat.

Dr. Norman A. Handy Sr., a Democratic city councilman, adds: "If the rumors are true, then she's smart as a fox. Everyone is amazed and impressed that she would take on the challenge. Even the governor has been walking two steps behind William Donald Schaefer."

Besides, they and others agree, Pratt has nothing to lose. She will gain invaluable political experience and put together her organization, while running from a secure position. She can fit in plenty of curbside politicking, church visits and parades without having to relinquish her $65,000-a-year job at City Hall.

"I admire her," says GOP consultant Carol Arscott, who encountered several of Pratt's volunteers handing out campaign literature in Ellicott City a week ago. "I don't see any drawbacks. She should absolutely go for it."

Goal of comptroller

Though Pratt does not rule out a mayoral bid, she insists, quite clearly, that she would prefer to be elected the state's next comptroller.

"That's my vision," she says. "That's my goal. I really think the comptroller's position should be held by someone with a financial background, and I have the experience."

She is offering her candidacy as "a new generation of leadership," a not-too-subtle reminder that the 76-year-old Schaefer is returning from retirement, after eight years as Maryland's governor and 15 as Baltimore's mayor.

Beyond a generational difference, Pratt says, the election offers voters a historic opportunity to put an African-American woman into one of the state's highest offices. She is not the only comptroller candidate whose election would mark a political passage; among the six Republicans is a woman, Ardath M. Cade, and an African-American, Michael S. Steele, believed to be the front-runner with the endorsement of GOP gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

Political analysts predict that even with those messages, Pratt will find it extremely hard to make any headway against Schaefer, who has been welcomed with an outpouring of support.

"It would be very difficult for her under normal circumstances," says Donald F. Norris, a policy scientist at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Now, she's running against someone people are making out to be a demigod. There's been this incredible nostalgia for Don Schaefer, and frankly, I think she's going to get buried."

'A formidable candidate'

Not everyone, however, is prepared to dismiss Pratt. Schmoke notes she has a strong volunteer base, including many fellow parishioners at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of Baltimore's largest and most influential congregations. If she persuades other ministers in the Baltimore and Washington suburbs to support her, Schmoke says, "she could be a formidable candidate."

Nor are all Marylanders equally eager to embrace Schaefer. James White Jr., a Princess Anne town commissioner, remembers the former governor's low approval ratings in his last term -- and his memorable comparison of the Eastern Shore to an outhouse.

"I don't know anything about her," he says, "but I'd certainly be open to someone new."

Against the odds

This is not the first time that the political establishment has written off Joan Pratt.

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