Sauerbrey's commitment to environment questioned Likely GOP candidate for governor struggles to convince advocates

Campaign 1998

August 24, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Ellen R. Sauerbrey has a 12-point environmental plan and a seven-point Clean Water Action plan. Protecting natural resources and the Chesapeake Bay is one of the highest priorities she identifies in her six-point economic program.

But the likely Republican gubernatorial candidate's proposals aren't gaining her many points with environmental advocates, many of whom refer to her derisively as "Ellen Sour-Bay."

The "greens" are lining up squarely behind Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who delivered a key item on their wish list last week as he struck a $25 million deal to save from development 1,850 acres of prime forest land at Chapman's Landing in Charles County.

Environmental groups say Sauerbrey's election-year promises cannot erase a 20-year record of opposing virtually every significant legislative effort to clean up Maryland's air and water. They dismiss the environmental program posted on her campaign's Web site as a compilation of unrealistic promises, contradictions of her own record and "weasel words."

Meanwhile, they point to her leadership role in a national organization that bills itself as "the antithesis of the Sierra Club" as evidence of her hostility to environmental goals.

If Sauerbrey has a weak spot in what otherwise appears to be a smooth-running campaign to oust Glendening, it could be the environment.

"You would have to put Maryland high on the list of states that have a value system of trying to protect the environment," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research. "Sauerbrey clearly vulnerable in terms of her overall environmental record."

Recent polling by Haller's firm shows that when Maryland voters are asked to name the most important problem facing Maryland today, only 5 percent say the environment. But he said the issue carries considerable weight in such key jurisdictions as Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

"In my view, it was the contrast between Ellen Sauerbrey's record on environmental issues and Parris Glendening's commitment on environmental issues that made the difference in 1994," said Del. Leon G. Billings, a Montgomery County Democrat.

The contrast is stark.

While the governor got off to a shaky start with environmental advocates, his record has become progressively greener.

Last year, Glendening's successful advocacy of "Smart Growth" legislation to curb sprawling development won him national recognition. His fight this year for a strong water-quality bill in response to toxic Pfiesteria outbreaks earned him praise from environmentalists even though he had to accept a weakened bill.

By dropping his support for a large highway through northern Montgomery County called the Inter-County Connector (ICC), he removed a long-standing irritant in his relations with conservationists.

"You can legitimately say Parris Glendening is one of the most pro-environment, pro-public health governors in the country," said Daniel J. Weiss, political director of the Sierra Club in Washington.

Those accolades come with a cost, however. Glendening's green policies have prompted some prominent business executives to contribute generously to the Sauerbrey campaign. They include Eastern Shore chicken magnate Frank Perdue, whose family anted up more than $30,000 to oust the governor after Glendening's anti-Pfiesteria initiative provoked his wrath.

While Sauerbrey will undoubtedly benefit financially from businesses' anger at Glendening, she will also be challenged to explain a record that leading environmental groups consider dismal.

During her 16-year career representing Baltimore County in the House of Delegates, Sauerbrey's record -- as measured by the Maryland League of Conservation Voters -- went from bad to worse. She started with a pro-environment score of just 33 percent during her first four-year term, 1979-1982, and followed that with scores of 22, 14 and 10.

Over that period, environmentalists say, she voted against or was absent on their most important bills, including a 1985 phosphate ban that is widely credited with reducing nutrient pollution in the bay.

Among many others, they also cite a 1979 vote against vehicle emissions testing, and 1985 and 1987 votes to allow strip mining on steep slopes.

"If she were elected, the environmental community would see it as a major setback," said Glen Besa, the Sierra Club's regional representative.

While her campaign is stressing the "sacred trust" of protecting the environment, there is little evidence that she has mellowed on specific issues. In 1997, she denounced Glendening's veto of a bill delaying vehicle emissions testing. This year, she criticized his insistence on including mandatory controls on farm pollution in his anti-Pfiesteria bill -- insisting that the link between the microbe and nutrient runoff was based on "political science."

She has also denounced his reversal on the ICC -- a stand that has brought her a windfall of contributions from Washington-area businesses.

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