GOP's Epstein faces bipartisan past Comptroller hopeful looks to Republicans, Sauerbrey for support

October 05, 1998|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

After losing the 1990 election to Maryland comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, Republican Larry M. Epstein became a fan of the legendary Democratic politician. Over lunches of salads and deli sandwiches, the two formed a friendship -- and Epstein decided not to seek a rematch.

"I'm an accountant. I'm not a political strategist," Epstein said recently, explaining his willingness to cross party lines and endorse Goldstein four years ago. "I do what I think is right."

Goldstein's death in July freed Epstein to enter this year's race for comptroller -- a campaign in which he faces another political titan in former Gov. William Donald Schaefer. But as Epstein seeks to ride a Republican wave to Annapolis, his bipartisan past may prove to be a political handicap.

Besides endorsing Goldstein in 1994, Epstein appeared at a news conference where a group of Republicans endorsed then-Democratic gubernatorial candidate Parris N. Glendening in his first race against Ellen R. Sauerbrey. This raised hackles within the Sauerbrey camp, prompting Epstein to meet with her last winter in hopes of mending his relationship with his party's most powerful personality.

"I'm never going to outlive this one," Epstein said last week, insisting that he "never really" endorsed Glendening. He said voters should focus on his professional credentials and elect him comptroller.

Epstein, 50, is a senior partner at Hertzbach & Company, an Owings Mills accounting firm. With a stable of builders and contractors for clients, he said he understands the intricacies of contracts -- knowledge that he said would serve him well when evaluating proposals as a member of the state's powerful, three-member Board of Public Works.

He said he would use the office as a soapbox to lobby for incentives to encourage business growth in Maryland. He also said he would seek to bring in outside accounting firms to look for inefficiency in state agencies -- a tack that he said worked well when he was an adviser to former Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden.

Epstein said he understands fiscal management better than Schaefer, and is more likely to bring a fresh energy to the office than the former governor, who will turn 77 the day before the Nov. 3 general election.

"He would just put his name on the door and that would be it. I think that's what would happen if Don Schaefer got in there," Epstein said.

"You need new enthusiasm. I just think there are a lot of things that can be done with that office that will promote the state."

A spokesman for Schaefer said any suggestion that he would be a do-little caretaker is "grossly unfair."

"The governor feels this is a job he can do, and that's why he is running for that office," said spokesman Michael D. Golden. "It's ludicrous to say you need to be an accountant to be comptroller of the state."

Epstein is an amiable man, a father of two who lives near Cal Ripken's landmark mansion in Baltimore County. He is liked and respected by his business associates, but beneath the nice-guy surface is an assertive and confident businessman with a gift for sizing up a challenge, those who know him said.

Michael S. Kosmas, who worked with Epstein on former Republican congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley's failed gubernatorial campaign, said Epstein advances the stereotype of the cautious, analytical accountant.

"He's a thinker. He doesn't always have to be the first person to make a comment on something," Kosmas said. "When he does say something, it tends to be something that's well thought-out, that makes sense."

Said Bentley: "I would hope that Larry brings the other element to the Maryland Republican Party that is needed, that maybe we need a little more moderation to the extreme right that seems to be taking over."

She endorsed Epstein in last month's primary, which he won by just eight votes over rival Timothy R. Mayberry, who had spent five years building support among Republican activists. Epstein also beat Prince George's County lawyer Michael Steele, who had been hand-picked by Sauerbrey.

But Bentley, who is also friendly with Schaefer, has not taken sides in the general election.

"The only thing I regret at this point is that two of my very good friends are competing against each other for comptroller," she -- said.

In 1990, at Bentley's urging, Epstein represented the Republican Party in the state comptroller's race.

He knew he had no chance to defeat Goldstein, who by then had served eight terms as comptroller. But Epstein saw the race as a way of paying dues and positioning himself for a future run at the office. He hit the campaign trail, and criticized Goldstein as being burned-out and complacent.

Then, after losing with only 28 percent of the vote, he began to take the occasional lunch with Goldstein at Annapolis landmarks such as Chick & Ruth's Delly and the Treaty of Paris. They met more than half a dozen times.

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