Former Gov. William Donald Schaefer took a step forward in his political comeback last night, winning the Democratic nomination for state comptroller. But a tight race to determine his Republican opponent will not be decided until absentee ballots are counted.
Schaefer, returning to politics after a restless retirement, won an easy victory in yesterday's primary to earn a spot on the Nov. 3 general election ballot -- the first comptroller's race in four decades without political legend Louis L. Goldstein's name on the ballot.
In the GOP race, Larry M. Epstein, the 1990 Republican nominee for comptroller, held a narrow lead with 23 percent of the vote. With 99 percent of the precincts reporting, Timothy R. Mayberry, the party's nominee four years ago, trailed by 296 votes.
Michael Steele, the first black to head the Prince George's County Republican Party and the hand-picked choice of GOP gubernatorial nominee Ellen R. Sauerbrey, was third with 21 percent of the Republican vote. Sauerbrey endorsed Steele to give her ticket a Washington-area presence and racial diversity.
The outcome will likely not be determined for at least a few days, until after elections officials have counted absentee ballots. More than 7,000 absentee ballots were issued to Republican voters.
"It's amazing," said Epstein, a partner in an Owings Mills accounting firm. "I had no feeling going into this thing [yesterday] morning whether I would finish first or last."
Mayberry, who never stopped campaigning after being trounced by Goldstein in 1994, said early this morning: "This is the one result I really didn't want to have happen. You just sit here and wait. I've been working on this for four years, and I'd like to have a result."
He added: "I think the Republican Party has demonstrated, at least in this race, that the conventional wisdom doesn't work. Endorsements don't make a whole lot of difference.
"It comes down to qualifications. You have two people who are qualified, and they're neck-and-neck."
Steele's campaign manager, Kirk Murray, said his candidate still has a shot to win. "We have not conceded to anyone," he said early this morning.
Schaefer defeated his best-known opponent, Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, 55 percent to 25 percent. Returns showed Schaefer with a slight edge in the city.
"I feel really good," Schaefer said at election night festivities at the Harbor Inn Pier 5. "I can do this job. I know what this job is about."
In the general election campaign, Schaefer, 76, will almost surely trade on his unsurpassed name recognition and stress his years of government experience. But he likely will be criticized by Republicans as a free-spender who is only running for office because he is bored with retirement.
"If they're critical of me I'll try to keep my temper, but it's sometimes difficult," Schaefer said last night. "I'm not going to get into negative campaigning. My campaign has always been about looking forward, never looking back."
Schaefer said he would not bring sweeping changes to the comptroller's office. "It isn't necessary for the new comptroller to come in and wipe everybody out just because he's new," he said. "That's stupid. Dumb."
Schaefer and Gov. Parris N. Glendening mended their differences enough to campaign together. But some voters might be squeamish about the prospect of a governor and former governor on the Board of Public Works.
"There certainly is enough scuttlebutt about there being a hydra-headed government structure in Maryland with Glendening, and with Schaefer as comptroller," said political pollster Keith Haller.
The scramble for the comptroller's office began almost immediately after Goldstein's death July 3. Goldstein, the state's longest-serving public official, died just as he began campaigning for an unprecedented 11th term as comptroller -- and just three days before the deadline for candidates to file to be on the ballot.
The Republican race seemed a test of the relative clout of endorsements and party loyalties. While Steele was encouraged to run by Sauerbrey, Ardath M. Cade, a high-ranking administrator in Anne Arundel County and the widow of a respected state senator, was endorsed by The Sun and the Washington Post.
Epstein told voters that his experience as a certified public accountant would enable him to sort through complex financial decisions.
Pub Date: 9/16/98