Gamble on slots cost Rehrmann Cause wasn't enough to rally voters against incumbent governor

August 12, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron and JoAnna Daemmrich | Thomas W. Waldron and JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

In her steep uphill campaign to unseat the governor, Democrat Eileen M. Rehrmann needed three things -- a little luck, a lot of money and an issue to call her own.

When she abruptly quit Monday, she had none.

With the Maryland economy thriving and the state government seemingly in good shape, Rehrmann found herself campaigning in an environment hospitable to incumbents -- not little-known challengers.

Big financial contributors, meanwhile, were reluctant to help her campaign unless she could show progress in the polls -- something the two-term Harford County executive struggled to do.

And she never found a cause to rally the voters. She was badly outmaneuvered by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and his aides over her unequivocal support for legalizing slot machines at Maryland's horse racetracks. Few other policy initiatives made an impression.

Finally, in an arduous meeting Sunday night, Rehrmann faced up to reality -- she was not going to defeat Glendening in the Democratic primary next month.

"Maryland is benefiting from a healthy national economy, andpeople are concerned about their pocketbooks first," Rehrmann said yesterday. "The governor had the power of incumbency: He was able to be Santa Claus all the way through."

Incumbency and the economy aside, some Democratic leaders believe the high point of Rehrmann's campaign led to her downfall. In April, when Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke endorsed Rehrmann, he framed gambling as her central issue. Even some of Rehrmann's supporters at that noontime rally replete with racehorse images cringed at the mayor's rhetoric. Glendening counterattacked by portraying her as a tool of gambling interests.

"You have to hand it to the governor," Schmoke conceded yesterday. "By using an easily understood mantra -- 'no slots, no casinos, no exceptions' -- it made it very difficult for those of us who are trying to broaden the discussion to really capture people's attention."

Many influential ministers were alienated, and Schmoke failed to convert any legislators.

"If it had been over crime, over the school system, over housing, over employment -- if he had gone out on the limb on any other issue, he would have had more of the community behind him," said Dr. Norman A. Handy Sr., a Democratic city councilman.

Slow to the point

Others say it took Rehrmann too long to articulate her $1 billion education-reform plan -- an initiative that she proposed to fund with revenue generated from slots. Concerned perhaps that she was being portrayed as the gambling candidate, Rehrmann campaigned initially on reforming managed health care. Only last week did she provide details of how she would spend the slots proceeds.

"Although she tried, it was very difficult to get her message out that she wanted the money [from slots] for education," Schmoke said. "And what we learned in the last few months was this was not so burning an issue that it would be a determining factor."

In the 15 months since she jumped into the race, Rehrmann raised roughly $1 million, but nearly all of it was spent -- much of it on expensive statewide mailings, signs and radio ads designed to boost her name recognition.

Over the summer, fund raising grew harder. Potentially generous contributors saw only incremental movement in the polls. Others said they would love to give but pointed at Maryland law, which limits contributions from an individual to $10,000 to all candidates over a four-year election cycle.

Some who did give seemed to be hedging their bets. They gave only a quarter of the amounts Rehrmann sought.

Rehrmann and her political strategist, Larry S. Gibson, blamed some of their financial difficulties on the candidacy of millionaire Democrat Raymond F. Schoenke Jr. Before quitting the race last month, Schoenke purchased a flood of expensive television commercials. Rehrmann countered with three mailings, each costing about $100,000.

"Normally, you do mailings much later," Gibson said. "In light of Schoenke being in the race, we had to stay ahead until he got out. It necessitated expenditures at an earlier stage, and just made it difficult for folks to coalesce around a single challenger."

In recent weeks, the Rehrmann camp had figured that she would need $1 million to take her campaign on television. If she could do that, it was, at least potentially, a winnable race, Gibson and others in the campaign concluded.

Not enough donations

But after reviewing its list of potential donors, the Rehrmann camp could count on collecting perhaps $250,000, far short of what would be needed. Glendening, meanwhile, appeared to be well on his way to raising $5 million, with much of it budgeted for a television ad war against Rehrmann.

The struggle proved anew a cardinal rule of politics: Nobody wants to give money to a loser.

"In a campaign, you spend within your resources," Rehrmann said yesterday. "I'm not independently wealthy. I knew we weren't going to meet our goal, and I don't believe in deficit spending."

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