Glendening facing home-turf hurdles Election: He retains considerable strength, but some Prince George's voters have concerns about his job as governor.

August 10, 1998|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

LAUREL -- In a quiet cul-de-sac off Belle Ami Drive, a steamfitter, a county police officer and a floral designer contemplate their choices in this year's race for governor with interest that challenges assumptions of voter indifference.

Situated in northernmost Prince George's County, the voters of Belle Ami find themselves caught in a cross-fire of feuding Democrats who fill the airwaves with charge and countercharge.

The resulting confusion and disgust could lead to extremely low turnouts this fall -- especially in a year when general economic well-being might make voting seem less urgent.

If accurate, that prediction could be damaging for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who for 12 years presided over this county of nearly 780,000, a majority African-American jurisdiction where the median income was a healthy $50,718 last year. Filled with new subdivisions as well as neglected public housing projects, the county could well be a battleground in the 1998 elections.

Recent polling suggests that Glendening must clear a number of hurdles, even on his home turf, if he is to prevail in the Sept. 15 Democratic primaryand Nov. 3 general election.

But worries about apathy fade for a moment in the leafy Belle Ami neighborhood, where oversized American flags billow above well-tended flower beds and the sounds of children playing are prevalent.

"They're not home," shouts a young girl as County Councilman Walter H. "Mike" Maloney knocks on a door Thursday evening while out campaigning for re-election.

But three of the Democrats Maloney is looking for are in.

Steve Owens, the steamfitter, comes to his door with his daughter, Stephanie, 10. He says he's for Glendening, crediting him with creating jobs, with hard work on the state's public schools and with thoughtful efforts to control development.

Police Lt. Elizabeth J. Mints stops on the sidewalk outside her house to say she will vote for Glendening, based on his support of the police when he served as Prince George's County executive from 1982 to 1994.

But Robin Ridgely, who arranges flowers for a shop in Silver Spring, offers equally strenuous objections to a second term for Glendening, referring to what she calls the "out of control" conditions at nearby Laurel High School and in public schools throughout the county.

She says the problems are Glendening's responsibility, because was county executive until he was elected governor four years ago.

Polling suggests that many Prince Georgians have a decidedly low opinion of their schools, but like Ridgely, they regard education as a critically important issue.

"I've had concerns about him since he was county executive," she says. "He's been in long enough that I don't expect to change my mind about him." If he cared about schools, she wonders, why have the county's been going downhill so observably and steadily?

She says she has never heard of Glendening's primary #i opponent, Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann -- although Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry, also a Democrat, is supporting Rehrmann in a series of radio advertisements.

If the Curry-Glendening split confuses voters who might expect Democratic unity, Ridgely is not among them. She doesn't hear the anti-Glendening ads -- or the pro-Glendening counter-ads. She listens to a Christian radio station on her way to work. "I find I need that to get through the day," she says.

Ridgely, 37, dismisses the Democrats easily enough: She will probably vote for Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey in the general election. And while the commercials might not help Rehrmann, they could damage the governor in his expected race against the Republican.

Concerns for the schools

Ridgely saves her concerns for the schools, which she thinks have drifted far afield from the academic fundamentals and moral underpinnings that children need. She's thinking seriously leaving for Howard or Carroll County to find an atmosphere where her two younger children, 10-year-old Laura and 13-year-old Jaimie, can prosper.

Many others in the county are voting "no" to public education by home schooling their children: As many as 1,800 Prince George's children learn at home, three times as many as in 1996.

With support from voters such as Mints, 51, and Owens, 42, Glendening may be out of danger in Prince George's in the Democratic primary -- but even in that race he should retain some concern, according to Keith Haller of Potomac Survey Research.

Haller says the high number of undecided Democratic voters in Glendening's home county -- 34 percent -- is not a good sign.

"The golden rule," says Haller, "is that undecided voters two months or six weeks away from an election don't go to the incumbent."

Thus, he says, Glendening must be certain that voters such as Owens and Mints go to the polls.

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