Considering the realities of governorship

October 11, 1998|By Barry Rascovar

THIS YEAR'S repackaging of Ellen R. Sauerbrey for governor leaves voters with a difficult question to answer: Should the Republican's revised positions on issues be taken seriously, or is it a political con?

Has she truly rethought the complexities of governing? Or is she cynically re-casting her words to get elected?

After her loss in 1994, Ms. Sauerbrey took a long look at what went wrong. She was advised to embrace less hard-edged conservative positions that might draw independent-minded Democrats to her side.

That's what she is doing.

But a number of savvy politicians detect something else: A genuine recognition by the candidate that she no longer can assume the role of the bomb-throwing outsider, as she did for 20 years. Now she's got to confront the hard reality of finding solutions to societal and governmental problems, for which there are rarely easy answers.

She no longer maintains that government is a great evil that must be stamped out. She sees areas where government can be a force for good. And she is expressing concern for the well-being of citizens in need, something she rarely mentioned in 1994.

She no longer talks about eviscerating local aid to schools, or savaging environmental laws, or wiping out social programs.

Instead, she's talking about expanding government spending in some areas: 1,000 more teachers, economic incentives to stimulate job growth, annual cost of living increases for state workers.

She's also not talking about a Republican Revolution. She says she would uphold state laws on abortion and on handgun control, and leave undisturbed the executive order on collective bargaining for state employees.

Four years ago, she never would have made such assertions.

What's happened? Is it manipulative "spin control" by a candidate positioning herself to appear to be all things to all voters?

That's what backers of Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening angrily maintain. They say it is Ellen Sauerbrey who's inconsistent and playing political games with voters.

Yet many of Ms. Sauerbrey's most zealous cheerleaders are angry at the Republican nominee, too. They feel she is betraying the cause of GOP conservatism.

Rarely in her long career has Ms. Sauerbrey been manipulative or devious. She is a straight-arrow, sometimes to the point of naivete. When she makes a commitment, she stands by it. XTC Deal-making and scheming are alien to her.

Many of her far-right legislative positions came out of her theoretical belief in conservative philosophies. Being in a decided minority in the General Assembly, with virtually no chance of passing legislation, she accentuated the gulf between Democratic proposals and her theoretical Republican plans. She had nothing to lose.

But in recent months, Ms. Sauerbrey has begun to realize that if she were to become governor, she wouldn't have the luxury of spouting right-wing theory. No, she would have to deal with nitty-gritty dilemmas where thousands of lives could be at risk. It is an arena, she is discovering, without crisp black-and-white solutions, only a sea of gray.

She also recognizes that as governor she'd have limited political capital to expend. Why waste that precious resource on unwinnable right-wing crusades?

Ms. Sauerbrey is a far more poised and thoughtful candidate this time, more willing to concede that there aren't just two sides to a controversy, but multiple points of view. A governor has to take all of that in and seek a workable solution.

That's especially important for Ms. Sauerbrey because she would be dealing with a heavily Democratic legislature. She could not succeed without compromising.

No, Ellen Sauerbrey has not abandoned her belief that less government is the best government. Budgets would be tightened dramatically, tax cuts would be proposed and business concerns would be championed. She's recognizing, though, that sweeping changes may not be possible.

We are seeing a candidate more in touch with the complex nature of human problems. She is starting to understand that governing a state may not be as simple as it appears from the outside.

Deputy editorial page editor Barry Rascovar is the author of a new book, "The Great Game of Maryland Politics."

Pub Date: 10/11/98

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