Boozer faces tough test Senator too liberal, says physician foe in GOP primary

August 17, 1998|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

For almost two decades, state Sen. F. Vernon Boozer has enjoyed a comfortable position as a moderate Republican representing a big chunk of central Baltimore County. Now, he's under attack as being too liberal.

Boozer, a Towson attorney, faces a serious threat from challenger Dr. Andrew Harris, an obstetric anesthesiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital who is seeking to unseat the incumbent in next month's Republican primary.

Harris has aggressively targeted Boozer's votes on such volatile issues as abortion, physician-assisted suicide, gay marriages and a needle-exchange program.

"He's aiming at me strictly on those social issues," Boozer, 62, said recently. "Does it hurt me? You betcha. But I did what I thought was right for the people in the district."

Boozer, a senator since 1981, characterizes his opponent as an anti-abortion advocate whose political stance is "very right to the point of being extreme." Billing himself

as the the only conservative Republican in the 9th District Senate race, Harris labels Boozer "too liberal" and hammers away at his legislative record as being "against our families."

"It is clear that Vernon Boozer's voting record is out of touch with the people in the district," said Harris, 41, a first-time candidate and vice president of the North Central Republican Club for five years. "Somebody has to stand up to help the district and voters in Maryland."

Of particular concern to Harris are Boozer's votes during the 1998 General Assembly against a ban on partial abortions and his support of clean needles for addicts. Boozer, who was elected Senate minority leader in 1996, defends his actions.

"I've always been pro choice. That does not mean I support abortion," he said. "It means I care about the health of the women in this state."

Boozer said the abortion bill, which the Senate defeated, was too vague and could have banned all abortions. He supported the needle-exchange bill, which eventually was killed, because of the program's success in Baltimore, he said.

But Harris also faults Boozer for voting against a bill that would have forbidden Maryland from recognizing out-of-state, same-sex marriages -- a measure Boozer calls gay-bashing -- and a bill that would have regulated what health care providers could do for terminally ill patients.

Republicans are watching the race closely.

"I hold Vernon and Dr. Harris in high regard. If the candidates address the issues as opposed to personalities, a strongly contested primary is good," said Al Mendelsohn, an incoming member of the county GOP State Central Committee. "It shows there is a vibrant party."

Del. Martha S. Klima, a Lutherville Republican who is running on a ticket with Cockeysville Republican Del. A. Wade Kach, said: "Dr. Harris is being very aggressive. Let the voters really pay attention to this. It's going to be very interesting."

Although Klima said she is not supporting either candidate, County Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a Towson Republican who is not seeking re-election after two terms, is backing Boozer.

"Overall, it would be an unfortunate loss for the district if we were not to have his experience and his leadership as Senate minority leader, especially his moderation as a legislator," Riley said. "He knows how to get things done for the district and has been doing so very well."

Boozer -- who lives in Sparks with his wife, Diane, and has four sons ages 18 to 35 -- prides himself on sponsoring such legislation as strong penalties for child pornography; the state's Megan's Law, which required child molesters to register their address with police; and increasing the age to 18 for the purchase of tobacco products.

Harris -- who lives in Cockeysville with his wife, Sylvia, known as ,, "Cookie," and four children ages 2 to 14 -- is stressing his expertise as a physician. Sitting in the Towson office of his campaign treasurer David Clinnin last week, Harris, who has a master's degree in health policy and management, said the legislature needs more people with his background.

"I bring medical expertise that only a physician interested in health care can bring," said Harris, who has been at Hopkins for 18 years. "We have to begin looking at the issues and combining health interests, business interests and patients' interests."

Harris has vowed to fight tax increases for families; to give parents more control over their children's education, either through vouchers or charter schools; to eliminate parole for violent offenders; and to improve the business climate.

Calling his campaign a grass-roots effort, Harris has raised about $20,000 in his fight against Boozer. But his coffers should grow considerably at a $250- and $100-a-head reception Sept. 2 featuring Dr. Benjamin Carson, the well-known Hopkins pediatric neurosurgeon who supports him.

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