When elders speak, the politicians listen Seniors: Their regular voting habits make them a key constituency, and office-seekers are reacting accordingly.

August 25, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

In Catonsville's 16th Precinct, no ordinary excuse will do for missing an election.

Not work. Not rain. Not long lines at the polls. And certainly not old age.

Virtually all of the 2,500 people here vote religiously -- and all are at least 62 years old. So committed are they that their home, the Charlestown Retirement Community, is a precinct unto itself -- and boasts one of the highest turnout rates in Baltimore County.

That makes Charlestown -- like other retirement villages and senior centers across the state -- a can't-be-missed stop for political candidates trying to make their way to the Maryland legislature, Congress or the governor's mansion.

Shaking hands with seniors is perhaps as fleeting but indispensable a campaign gesture as kissing babies. But this year, both the Democratic governor and his Republican challengers are making even more of an effort to court Maryland's elderly, a key constituency given the predictions of a lackluster overall turnout in the fall election.

"The politicians are very eager to come here," says Virginia Moore, 87, a former high school teacher and principal who has retired at Charlestown.

"All we have to do is pick up the telephone, and they're here," agrees Orth Rader, 68, a retired American Automobile Association staff director who lives in Leisure World, a huge Silver Spring senior community.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening visited Towson's Bykota Senior Center yesterday to announce a volunteer drive aimed at getting more Marylanders to help out in their local schools. He reeled off a list of his administration's initiatives for senior citizens, including a newly expanded property tax exemption for low-income homeowners.

Working the room

"We've been working aggressively on behalf of seniors," Glendening told 60 white-haired men and women in the lunch room. He tried on one pensioner's straw hat, toured a ceramics class and drew chuckles by recounting how his grandfather remarried several years ago.

For Glendening, such glad-handing has taken on greater urgency since his chief GOP rival, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, has made an even more direct appeal to Maryland's retirees. She has promised the one in nine Marylanders who are 65 or older a significant tax break.

Sauerbrey is proposing that up to $33,000 of every individual's retirement earnings be exempted from state taxes after age 65. Maryland now excludes roughly the first $15,000 of Social Security and pension income from taxation.

Already, just days after she announced the tax cut to a standing-room-only crowd at Leisure World, Sauerbrey has won a number of converts there. Political analysts also were quick to credit her with articulating an issue that would resonate with the important senior bloc.

"It's a very savvy move," says Herb Smith, a political scientist at Western Maryland College. "American politics is founded on self-interest, and frankly, the older the citizen, the more likely that citizen is to vote."

Sauerbrey says she hopes easing the tax burden will stop an exodus of the elderly to other states. But Maryland planners note that the 65-and-over population actually is growing more rapidly than the rest of the state -- and the national average.

In 1990, Marylanders 65 and older made up 14.3 percent of the population of voting age. By 1997, their numbers had grown to 15.3 percent of the population over age 18. But since they traditionally have by far the highest voting participation rate, some analysts predict seniors could make up as much as a third of the likely electorate this year.

'Take citizenship seriously'

"It's true, we're paying attention because they vote, and I think that's a tribute to them," says Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a frequent visitor at Charlestown, where her in-laws live. "They lived through the Depression and World War II, and they have a strong understanding of what democracy is. They take citizenship seriously."

Maryland's candidates are seeking to distinguish themselves even as they go after the same voters. While Sauerbrey promotes her income tax break, her Republican opponent, Charles I. Ecker, talks of helping pensioners cope with high property taxes. Ecker, who has visited four large retirement villages, touts building new senior centers and expanding the Meals-on-Wheels program as Howard County executive.

"We're asking, 'What are your problems? What do you need?' " he says. "A lot of elderly I've talked to are worried about their property taxes. A new development comes in, and the price doubles."

Meanwhile, Glendening is making the rounds, talking up the 10 percent income tax cut for all Marylanders and the property tax relief for low-income elderly. He recently snipped the ribbon on a new traffic light at Leisure World, and stopped at another Towson senior center last month to propose a series of HMO reforms.

If the senior bloc is informed and highly motivated, however, it is by no means united.

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