Political races become bitter Montgomery County campaigns resort to insults, 'cheap shot'

Campaign 1998

September 11, 1998|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

The self-proclaimed capital of good government isn't looking too good these days.

In Montgomery County, where candidates issue excruciatingly detailed position papers and everyone is too civilized to be a political boss, campaign talk is centered on marital infidelities, 11 snooping private eyes, Son of Sam and improper leafletting.

And that's just the state's attorney's race. Reporters heard County Council candidates "Baldy" and "Fat Boy" -- aka Michael Subin and William O'Neil -- trading personal insults as they left a TV studio.

"These candidates want these jobs very, very badly," said County Council member Gail Ewing, who is not seeking re-election. "Tough competition doesn't bring out the best in everyone."

Montgomery officials tend to have staying power, making this year unusual. Two at-large County Council members are stepping down. Meanwhile, the office of state's attorney has attracted a fierce battle after the departure two years ago of Andrew Sonner, a 27-year incumbent, for a seat on the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

"It's likely that whoever wins will hold the jobs for 20 years," said Blair Lee, a developer and former Montgomery County lobbyist in Annapolis. "It's all about musical chairs. When the music stops, someone is going to have a career-ending day next Tuesday."

The candidates insist they are running "issue-oriented" campaigns in the best Montgomery County tradition.

"Nasty? Do you really think it's been nasty?" asked Robert Dean, appointed to fill out the final two years of the prosecutor's four-year term. "I guess I'm used to courtroom attacks. As long as they don't cross a certain line, they just roll off me."

That line was bent to the breaking point this week, when a former assistant, who is suing him for sexual harassment, released two handwritten love poems purported to be from Dean, a married man with six children.

In a federal suit filed in May, Teresa Whalen alleges Dean wrote the poems, "A Moment" and "To Think of You," during their two-year affair. Her suit claims she was fired last year after she broke off their relationship.

Dean supporters, including U.S. Rep. Albert Wynn, called the release of the poems a week before the primary a politically motivated "cheap shot."

The candidate issued a written statement acknowledging a "personal relationship" with Whalen, 40, during "a difficult time that my wife and I put behind us several years ago."

The matter never came up yesterday during a candidates' forum, even though Whalen attended, coming within 6 feet of Dean.

'A piece of trash'

Instead, with hands shaking, Dean attacked one of his opponents, Douglas Gansler, for mailing to registered Democrats "a piece of trash" criticizing him for taking contributions from his staff.

Gansler, a former assistant U.S. attorney, countered that Dean's literature "demeaned and vilified my experience as a federal prosecutor."

Republican James Shalleck, a former district attorney in New York, complained of whispered rumors that he padded his resume to claim credit for prosecuting David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam" killer.

"Berkowitz confessed to me," Shalleck said with some exasperation. "He told me and then the nation found out."

Self-inflicted wounds

Dean, the incumbent, has been under constant attack. But some of his wounds have been self-inflicted.

In April, he hired a private investigator to investigate Gansler's past. Local newspapers had a field day, forcing Dean to apologize.

A month later, his campaign staff broke county law by stuffing fliers for a fund-raiser in the office mailboxes of police officers and members of the sheriff's department.

Dean's blanket explanation for his campaign miscues is that he is a prosecutor, not a politician.

rTC "There's some genius in that spin," Lee said. "But the truth is it is an elected position."

Ewing said nasty campaigning saddens her because it just reinforces the public's perception that politics is a dirty business.

"This is no different from church or synagogue or other groups where factions clash," she said. "In politics, it just plays out on a larger stage and everyone sees it."

Pub Date: 9/11/98

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