Primary Choices Moderate Ecker faces conservative Sauerbrey

The Republicans

September 06, 1998|By Craig Timberg

For nearly four years, Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey has worked relentlessly toward a rematch with Gov. Parris N. Glendening. The only thing standing in her way is a quietly competent county executive named Charles I. Ecker.

Ecker and Sauerbrey face off Sept. 15 in the Republican primary. Pollsters and pundits expect her to win by a wide margin, but Ecker is determined to offer GOP voters a choice.

In political shorthand, Ecker, 69 and finishing his second term as Howard County executive, is the moderate in the race. Sauerbrey, 60 and a former state legislator from Baltimore County, is the conservative.

But voters listening to the candidates' rhetoric might have trouble hearing that difference. Both have promised to improve the state's business climate, trim regulations, sharply limit parole for violent criminals and beef up discipline and standards in public schools. Neither has shown much enthusiasm for divisive social issues such as abortion.

The most important differences between them might lie in their leadership styles. Sauerbrey is a battler - passionate and articulate, driven by conservative ideas. Ecker is a manager - steady and predictable, with a knack for bringing opposing sides together.

"Ellen is a 'what' person, and Chuck is a 'how' person," says GOP consultant Carol Arscott, who has advised both candidates at different times during the past decade. "Ellen probably knows exactly what she would do as governor and would get to the 'how' details later, whereas Chuck probably knows exactly how he would run the government but at this point isn't exactly sure what he'd do if he got there."

Sauerbrey has honed her message - focusing on cutting taxes, fighting crime and going back to the basics in schools - during five years of almost nonstop campaigning.

She was Republican leader in the House of Delegates but little known outside her Baltimore County district when she first ran for governor in 1994.

With a pledge to slash income taxes by 24 percent, she beat then-Rep. Helen Delich Bentley in the 1994 GOP primary. Less than two months later, Sauerbrey came within 6,000 votes of becoming Maryland's first Republican governor in nearly three decades.

Her showing was historic, signaling a surge of Republican strength in a state long dominated by Democrats. But Sauerbrey tarnished her image by contending that Glendening's narrow victory was a product of vote fraud. When the case withered away in court, she earned an enduring nickname - "Ellen Sourgrapes."

The loss and the controversy did not dim Sauerbrey's desire to be governor. She continued campaigning, with her new goal the 1998 election. She also began to retool her message, broadening it beyond tax cuts and moderating its tone.

On abortion and gun control - two issues crucial to some of her conservative supporters - Sauerbrey has said that while she personally opposes both, she does not intend to fight to overturn Maryland's gun control and abortion rights laws. The main exception concerns a controversial late-term abortion procedure that both she and Ecker want banned.

Sauerbrey also has downplayed her support of school vouchers. The issue is popular with conservatives because it allows parents to use public money to send their children to private or parochial schools. In 1994, Glendening used the issue to paint her as an enemy of public education.

Sauerbrey still supports school vouchers but says her priority is reforming the public schools; rarely does she let a campaign stop pass without a mention of her years as a high-school science teacher in Baltimore County.

She also speaks of bolstering reading instruction by teaching phonics, instilling more discipline in classrooms and ending so-called "social promotion," in which poorly performing students pass grades to keep pace with their peers. Also, she wants to abolish parole for violent criminals and create a new statewide Juvenile Court to deal with young offenders.

But the key to Sauerbrey's message remains economics. She argues that Maryland's economy lags behind the region's because of high taxes, excessive regulation and a state government that, under Glendening, is not spending money wisely.

"We have a governor who is an underachiever, and our state is underperforming," she says.

She frequently criticizes the governor's support of spending $270 million on two new football stadiums and his reluctance to build the Inter-County Connector through traffic-clogged Montgomery County.

But, as in 1994, her top economic issue is an income tax cut. She still supports a 24 percent overall cut - the 10 percent that Glendening and the legislature passed plus 14 percent more. Part of that would include her proposed tax break for retirees.

Anyone older than 65 would be able to exempt $33,000 of retirement income from state taxes. That would more than double the current exemption, for a savings of up to $800 a year.

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