The name is everything, GOP candidates find Comptroller: Name recognition elevated Epstein and Mayberry, but it was also name confusion that may have given Epstein the edge.

The Political Game

September 29, 1998|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

WHEN STATE Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein died in July, fellow Democrats put on a performance of improvisational political theater that brought former Gov. William Donald Schaefer back to the spotlight. Meanwhile, in relative quiet, Maryland Republicans were holding their own cattle call -- and setting the stage for one of the closest statewide elections in years.

In the end, a combination of factors allowed 1990 nominee Larry M. Epstein and 1994 nominee Timothy R. Mayberry to emerge from the GOP pack in the comptroller's race. They had an advantage in name recognition from earlier campaigns, and each ran strongly on his home turf. Epstein ultimately won by just eight votes -- the beneficiary, perhaps, of at least a little name confusion.

"What Epstein?" GOP consultant Kevin Igoe jokingly asked. "Louie Epstein?"

But we're getting ahead of the story.

Mayberry kept running

Flash back to June, when the 85-year-old Goldstein was alive and well and planning a run for his 11th term as state comptroller. Mayberry had never stopped running, even after being trounced by Goldstein in the 1994 general election.

Republican activists say Mayberry spoke to the GOP clubs, attended the Lincoln Day dinners, and otherwise made it clear the party could count on him to face off once again against the seemingly unbeatable Goldstein. This earned him a loyal core of supporters.

But when Goldstein died, Epstein entered the picture, along with another candidate who would emerge as the presumed front-runner. Michael Steele had charisma, a background in underdog politics and, above all, the endorsement of Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

So why was Steele nervously pacing the hallways of the BWI Marriott on election night while Sauerbrey and her supporters were in the ballroom, celebrating her landslide primary victory?

"Name identification was the name of the game in this campaign," Steele said later, reflecting on his loss.

Republican voters recognized Epstein and Mayberry as names they had voted for. With a late start to the race -- Goldstein died just three days before the filing deadline -- and a campaign conducted almost entirely during summer vacation season, other candidates in the field of six had a hard time catching up.

Sauerbrey's popularity

Baltimore GOP chairman David R. Blumberg said Sauerbrey's tremendous popularity among Republicans might have overshadowed the comptroller candidates and made it more difficult for them to become known.

"People are so supportive of her that, to many Republicans, she's the whole ballgame," he said.

Sauerbrey endorsed Steele, an African-American from the Washington suburbs, to strengthen her ticket in the general election. She included his name in her television advertising and on some of her literature, including cards handed out at the polls. She also penned a letter of support that was reprinted in a brochure mailed by Steele days before the Sept. 15 primary. It wasn't enough.

"Even though party insiders certainly knew Ellen had endorsed Michael Steele, out in the hustings, I'm not sure they knew," Blumberg said.

Igoe said endorsements of Ardath M. Cade, an administrator for Anne Arundel County government, by The Sun and the Washington Post were a shot at Sauerbrey -- but they diluted Steele's strength.

Blumberg also said that Republicans from large subdivisions, such as Baltimore City and Prince George's County, aren't always welcomed by voters in other parts of the state.

Home area advantage

Not that many outsiders were. Mayberry, who is from Washington County, won 63 percent of the vote in Western Maryland. Epstein, an Owings Mills accountant, won 56 percent of the vote in Baltimore City and Baltimore County. Even Robert W. Kearns, a relatively unknown and underfinanced candidate, won 56 percent of the vote in Queen Anne's, his home county.

Steele said, "We can sit back and try to wrap ourselves in the illusion that the voters know so much about us and they care about this important office, but that just flatly is not the case. We're fooling ourselves. It didn't boil down to that."

When they found themselves together at the front of the pack, Mayberry, a banker, and Epstein, a certified public accountant, said voters had chosen them for their backgrounds in money management.

But as the absentee ballots were counted and the margin grew remarkably tight, only Epstein could tell the story about the voter who approached him at the State Fair and said: "Louie Epstein? I vote for you every time."

Pub Date: 9/29/98

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