Epstein gets nod for comptroller Republican holds primary lead by seven votes

No recount sought

September 24, 1998|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF Sun research librarian Bobby Schrott contributed to this report.

Owings Mills accountant Larry M. Epstein has apparently won the Republican nomination for state comptroller by seven votes.

Officials said the margin -- out of 182,000 votes cast in the primary race -- is the closest statewide election in years.

Epstein, 49, the 1990 GOP nominee for the post, defeated rival Timothy R. Mayberry -- 42,487 votes to 42,480 -- according to unofficial results tallied yesterday by state officials.

"It is unbelievable," Epstein said of the tight vote count, adding: "As someone said to me, whether it's seven votes or 700,000 votes, it really doesn't matter after the fact."

The unofficial result was reached yesterday, more than a week after last Tuesday's primary election. County election officials had spent days sorting through absentee ballots and double-checking election night returns.

But state officials cannot certify the election as official until they receive signed, official documents from Baltimore City and all counties, a process that might not be complete until tomorrow.

"I would suspect it probably is the closest [statewide election], at least in recent memory," Linda H. Lamone, the state election's chief, said.

The Epstein-Mayberry race is "one of the object lessons in 'Every vote counts,' " said Herb Smith, a political scientist at Western Maryland College.

"This," he added, "is the 1998 version."

Mayberry, the 1994 Republican nominee for comptroller, yesterday held a slim hope that the numbers might change before election officials certify the results as official. But he said he would not ask for a recount.

"My goal is to make meaningful change in the state of Maryland, even if, by the majority of one vote, the Republican voters have decided Larry Epstein is the better candidate," Mayberry said. "That is certainly something I can accept, and I will work very hard to see that he is elected."

By officially winning the nomination, Epstein would move to a general election race against former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who easily won the Democratic nomination.

Epstein said if elected, he would make the office "more taxpayer friendly" and use the position's influence to push for tax cuts for residents and improving the state's business climate.

"It will give me the soapbox to talk about these issues," he said. He also said his campaign will criticize Schaefer as lacking a vision to improve the office.

Realizing he had little time to waste with the general election weeks away, Epstein began laying plans for his campaign before the primary had been decided. He said he plans to raise about $150,000 for the race -- far less than Schaefer has raised, but enough, Epstein said, to deliver his message.

He said he would like to debate Schaefer. The Schaefer campaign had no immediate response to that challenge, spokesman Michael Golden said.

Epstein drew 28 percent of the vote in the 1990 general election against political legend Louis L. Goldstein. He sat out the 1994 election, but filed to run after Goldstein died in July. He ran his primary election campaign with about $2,400 contributed by his Owings Mills accounting firm and no outside donations.

On their way to a photo finish, Epstein and Mayberry overcame Michael Steele, head of the Prince George's County Republican Party and the presumed front-runner after being recruited to run by GOP gubernatorial nominee Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

Steele finished third, as Republicans throughout the state voted overwhelmingly in favor of candidates from their own regions. Mayberry drew 83 percent of the vote from Washington County, where he lives. Epstein won 58 percent of the vote in Baltimore County and won handily in Baltimore City and Harford County.

Epstein and Mayberry shared an edge over the other four candidates: They'd won primaries for the office in years past. "Most of the people who voted in this primary have pulled the lever at least once for these guys," said GOP consultant Kevin Igoe.

Observers said two other factors propelled them to the front of the race. Mayberry never stopped campaigning after his 1994 loss to Goldstein and developed a loyal core of supporters -- including some who resented Sauerbrey's decision to back Steele over a candidate who had taken on Goldstein.

And Epstein may have benefited from a name that loosely resembles the late comptroller's.

After votes had been counted on election night, Epstein led Mayberry by 295. But the lead shrunk to within five votes as absentee ballots were counted last week.

Election officials then turned their attention to checking election-night numbers. After adjusting tallies from Prince George's, Allegany, Harford and Baltimore counties, the margin was seven votes.

The result, if declared official, would rival some of the closest elections ever conducted in Maryland and beyond.

The closest gubernatorial race in state history was in 1919, when Albert Cabell Ritchie won by 165 votes -- out of nearly a quarter million that had been cast.

Four years ago, a Connecticut congressman defeated a challenger by 21 votes, a result that was unsuccessfully challenged in that state's supreme court.

The narrowest percentage win recorded in an election, according to the Guiness Book of World Records, was a highway commissioner's race in 1979 in Mississippi that was decided by five votes out of 267,000 -- with the loser gaining more than 49.999 percent of the vote.

Pub Date: 9/24/98

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