The myth of Larry Gibson tarnished by governor's race

August 23, 1998|By Barry Rascovar

LARRY Gibson's image of political invincibility as a campaign strategist just took a battering. Only a fortuitous retreat saved him from a humiliating defeat for his gubernatorial candidate.

This was Mr. Gibson's chance to shine in a state election, to take a little-known county official and make her the giant-killer. Instead, it looks like Mr. Gibson's grasp of political dynamics doesn't extend to a statewide race.

He knows and understands the politics of Baltimore for city races. But what works in an urban environment with a majority-black population won't necessarily work in the heavily white suburbs -- where Maryland elections are decided these days.

Mr. Gibson's claim to fame has been his masterful direction of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's starried political career. The Gibson touch also worked in 1994 in one suburb, Prince George's County, where businessman Wayne K. Curry won election as county executive. It, too, is majority black.

Flawed strategy

Mr. Gibson's Rehrmann-for-governor strategy was flawed. He built Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann's campaign around the wrong issue -- a monumental miscalculation. She gave up the chase Aug. 10.

The one memorable Rehrmann campaign plank: slot machines at racetracks, to benefit education. It was a non-starter.

A late July poll by racing interests showed the issue barely resonated. Only 33 percent of poll respondents viewed it as a big issue, compared with 53 percent for taxes, 67 percent for trustworthiness and 71 percent for education.

Despite lots of city lawn signs -- a Gibson specialty -- Ms. Rehrmann remained a mystery to Baltimore voters. Even a stunning Gibson coup, getting her the Schmoke and Curry endorsements, had little impact.

In that July poll, Baltimore city and county blacks -- Mr. Gibson's core constituency -- gave Ms. Rehrmann a feeble 16 percent of the vote vs. 72 percent for Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Nearly half of voters in that poll still didn't know who Ms. Rehrmann was. After respondents were told of Ms. Rehrmann's stance on issues and her achievements, only 30 percent of Democrats said they would vote for her.

What went wrong? Plenty.

Mr. Gibson overlooked the enormous power an incumbent governor possesses. That is why Democratic leaders, except for the Gibson group, supported Governor Glendening.

In the city, nearly all state legislators endorsed the governor. Their names appear on the primary ballot, and they will be working hard. But Mayor Schmoke isn't a candidate this year. There's no army of Schmoke volunteers to enlist for Ms. Rehrmann.

It may have been personally advantageous for Mr. Gibson to talk Ms. Rehrmann into running on a "slots for tots" platform (he also works for the racetracks as a consultant), but the issue doesn't excite people.

Meanwhile, Ms. Rehrmann discovered that even though business leaders distrust the governor, they cannot afford to alienate him. To defeat an incumbent governor in a primary takes millions of dollars. Only a candidate who had lots of friends with deep pockets had a chance.

A weak link

And finally, the Gibson strategy of linking Ms. Rehrmann's success to Curry-Schmoke endorsements was doomed in populous, white suburbs. Mr. Schmoke, in particular, is not beloved outside the city.

Paying for a giant billboard overlooking the Jones Falls Expressway with Mr. Schmoke's stamp of approval on Ms. Rehrmann's portrait boomeranged: It reminded suburban commuters of their distaste for Mr. Schmoke.

It made the mayor look like an unsavory power broker, and it made Ms. Rehrmann look like a Gibson puppet.

Letting Mr. Gibson craft the Rehrmann strategy proved a giant miscue. Winning votes in white suburbs and rural areas are not his strength. The anti-Glendening animus shared by Mr. Gibson, Mr. Schmoke and Mr. Curry isn't enough to win an election.

In hindsight, Ms. Rehrmann should have recognized early on the long-shot nature of her quest and the futility of Mr. Gibson's advice. When an opening arose in the comptroller's race, Ms. Rehrmann should have seized the moment and switched races. But that didn't suit Mr. Gibson's purposes.

There are good reasons why an incumbent Maryland governor has never been defeated in a party primary. Given this year's Gibson debacle, that is one history lesson future campaign strategists are unlikely to ignore.

Barry Rascovar is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 8/23/98

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