GOP comptroller race awaits absentee ballots But Sauerbrey's choice acknowledges primary loss

Primary 1998

September 17, 1998|By Jay Apperson and JoAnna Daemmrich | Jay Apperson and JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

As two candidates in a photo finish for the GOP nomination for state comptroller awaited a final tally that may not arrive until next week, Republican gubernatorial nominee Ellen R. Sauerbrey's choice for the post acknowledged yesterday that he had lost the race.

Election officials were preparing yesterday to begin counting as many as 7,800 absentee ballots in order to name a winner in the race between Larry M. Epstein, the party's 1990 nominee for comptroller, and Timothy R. Mayberry, the 1994 Republican nominee.

Michael Steele, who had been endorsed by Sauerbrey, remained mathematically alive -- but, trailing by more than 4,500 votes, realistically had been eliminated.

"I can go back to a life," Steele, the first black to head the Prince George's County Republican party, said yesterday at the GOP unity breakfast in Annapolis. "I got my kids ready for school this morning, so life proceeds as usual. Now we're just going to work hard to get Ellen and [lieutenant governor candidate] Dick [Bennett] elected."

Steele was running third, with 21 percent of the vote. With all precincts reporting -- including two in Howard County that could not count ballots until yesterday because of computer problems -- Epstein held a 295-vote lead over Mayberry.

Most counties were to begin counting absentee votes this morning, said Linda H. Lamone, the state's elections chief. But she said 482 absentee ballots issued to Republicans in Prince George's County were not scheduled to be counted until Monday, leaving the possibility that the election might remain undecided until next week.

At yesterday's party unity breakfast, Sauerbrey, who had endorsed Steele to give her slate a presence from the suburbs of Washington, said she was disappointed that he hadn't won.

"But what it says is Republicans are independent and they make up their minds for themselves," she said later.

Steele said that prior campaigns probably gave Epstein and Mayberry advantages in name recognition. Also, Mayberry, a banker from Washington County, captured more than 60 percent of the vote in Western Maryland. Epstein, a partner in an Owings Mills accounting firm, won 58 percent of the vote in Baltimore County.

Some political observers said that Republicans, in failing to nominate Steele, have undone some shrewd political strategy laid by Sauerbrey.

"He was providing something very different for the ticket: a more moderate background, a strong speaker with inroads into some key constituencies, and [he is] from what is probably the most pivotal battleground in the 1998 election," political pollster Keith Haller said. "The Sauerbrey campaign must go back to the drawing board and devise a new strategy for running and selling their statewide ticket."

Christopher J. McCabe, a Republican state senator from Howard County who had endorsed Steele, said: "Michael Steele probably would have been the best candidate to reach out to those new type of swing voters, both geographically and racially. But I think Ellen wants Mike Steele to be a major player in her campaign. His name won't be on the ballot but that's not to say the vitality and diversity he brought cannot still be somehow utilized."

Sauerbrey vowed to support the eventual winner in a general election race against former Gov. William Donald Schaefer -- despite a backdrop of strained relationships with both Epstein and Steele.

Epstein, who was campaign treasurer for Sauerbrey's 1994 Republican rival, Helen Delich Bentley, said he and Sauerbrey had not spoken since the 1994 election until they met for lunch last winter.

Sauerbrey supporters have privately disparaged Epstein for backing the late comptroller Louis L. Goldstein and, they said, for participating in a group called Republicans for Glendening in 1994.

Epstein denies he was ever a member of that group, even though his name is listed on a membership list. "I have no idea who put that on there," he said yesterday.

Pub Date: 9/17/98

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