Glendening: politician as paradox Contradictions: Despite a successful career in politics, Maryland's governor is still perceived as a nonpolitician, an outsider.

October 18, 1998|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Parris N. Glendening has been an elected official for 25 years, a teacher longer still, and yet he still turns bright pink when he has to speak in public.

He was pink when he stood next to President Clinton at a Montgomery County elementary school last week. He was pink at a recent Hard Rock Cafe fund-raiser, as he clutched a beer and fumbled through what should have been a zippy one-liner. He's even pink when he visits elementary schools to read to children, a setting where he feels sufficiently relaxed to take off his jacket and sit on the floor.

Those who have known him for much of his public life seem taken aback by this observation. "I think it's a high-blood pressure thing," one demurred. "I'm turning red just thinking about that question," said another. "Maybe it's like the actress, I think it was Helen Hayes, who said she vomited before she went on stage," offered one of his oldest friends.

But the governor has no problem admitting to something that is as plain as the (red) nose on his face. "I don't know if you've noticed this," Glendening volunteered during a recent interview, "but sometimes I blush."

"Parris Pink" is simply the most visible sign of what might be called the Parris Paradox. Every time the governor ventures into the glad-handing arena of the campaign trail, he must overcome his shy, reticent nature.

Glendening, 56, is a career politician who has won every election in which he's run since 1973 yet is still perceived as a nonpolitician or outsider. He is a self-described policy wonk who has a taste for back-room deals and fund raising. He has many allies, but few friends. He is a smart man who sometimes does dumb things.

And he is a Democratic incumbent in a traditionally Democratic state, who has pushed through an array of popular initiatives, only to find himself locked in one of the tightest gubernatorial races in the country.

"He is not a political animal," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a one-time Glendening adversary who has become one of his allies, "and that is why this election is as close as it is."

Said Glendening: "I am who I am."

Who he is

Nothing seems to motivate Glendening as much as the word no. From his neglectful mother, who expressed surprise that her son was smart enough to win a college scholarship, to Prince George's County's Byzantine political scene, he has delighted in being the overachiever.

But that doesn't mean he has been known for his finesse in his public campaigns. Although he is said to have improved over 25 years, no one has ever accused Glendening of making politics look easy.

"Parris has always been a nervous campaigner," said Lance W. Billingsley, chairman of the University of Maryland Board of Regents, one of Glendening's friends and the man who first recruited him to run for office. "But as the going gets tough, he gets less nervous, his powers of concentration become more focused."

From the beginning, it was "ABP -- Anyone But Parris," recalled Tim Ayers, Glendening's director of communications after he was elected Prince George's County executive in 1982. Glendening hadn't been expected to keep the Hyattsville City Council job to which he was appointed in 1973, yet he did. And he certainly wasn't expected to win the county executive's job.

"That was when Prince George's was really rough and tumble, and there was just no way they were going to have this professor, this Ph.D., run for county executive," Ayers said. "They just thought, 'No way.' And then they thought, 'Well, no way will he get re-elected because no one ever had won two terms.' The third time, they resigned themselves to it."

According to Glendening, his dream of running for the governor's office took shape when someone remarked that it was impossible for a candidate from the Washington suburbs to win that office. After all, there hadn't been a governor from Prince George's County since Oden Bowie took office in 1869.

"Someone said, 'No one ever gets elected from this side of the state; you have to be from Baltimore,' " he said. "It became a bit of a challenge, it really did. If you set your mind to it and you know what you're doing, you can do it. Notwithstanding the flaws in my personality, as some would say, for the political game."

Here, opinions diverge as to whether Glendening's a skillful politician or simply a lucky one. It is undeniable that he caught a break in the 1994 primary when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke decided not to run and the campaign of former Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg foundered.

But, with his razor-thin victory over Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey, he took office under the shadow of a court challenge. He then made a series of political missteps, gaffes that affect his approval ratings to this day.

The pensions

Glendening had been governor less than a month when it came to light that he and three top aides had left Prince George's County with generous pension plans because, technically, they had been "involuntarily" separated from their jobs.

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