A backlash in suburbia Montgomery: Angry over impeachment, ticket-splitting voters are feeling Democratic this election season.

October 26, 1998|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

GOP lawmaker Jean B. Cryor, smiling brightly, offers her campaign literature to patrons at the Giant supermarket in the wealthy Montgomery County community of Potomac -- and sometimes they hand it right back to her.

"I won't vote for you because you're a Republican and I'm angry about that impeachment business," one of them told the delegate.

Some voters in this county are saying they'll vote for Democrats, whatever their qualifications, as a protest of the Republicans' impeachment zeal.

"I'll vote for Mickey Mouse this year if he's a Democrat," said Philip Finkel, who said the "railroading" of President Clinton leaves him "incensed." Finkel volunteered his views at a reception for Democrat Ralph G. Neas, who is running for Congress against Rep. Constance A. Morella, one of Montgomery's most popular elected officials.

Finkel and his wife, Monica, are classic Montgomery County voters -- ticket-splitters who disdain taking a straight party line. They've always been among the many Democrats for Morella, but when she voted for the impeachment inquiry they faxed her a letter: "The sanctimonious mouthing and embarrassing grandstanding by the majority leadership, makes it clear that [Republicans] have lost sight of their true constitutional duty," they wrote. "We must cast our votes in the hope of restoring some balance and sanity in the Congress -- even if it means voting for an unknown and abandoning someone who has served us well in the past."

Anger may flare higher over impeachment here because so many Montgomery Countians are engaged in government. They're offended that a matter they regard as deplorable yet inconsequential might deflect attention from the faltering world economy, the Middle East crisis or the upward rush of health care costs.

The question for Jean Cryor and others is whether the outrage will affect races for state government, particularly the gubernatorial battle between Democratic incumbent Parris N. Glendening and Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey. It could have an impact if it motivates a stronger Democratic turnout.

Four years ago, Glendening got enormous support in this county, which has been called the California of Maryland politics -- a center of big campaign contributors and big-name public figures.

In 1994, Glendening took 59 percent of the Montgomery vote, giving him a margin of 44,027 in a race he won by only 5,993 statewide. With Republican registration up in many parts of the state, observers feel he must match that performance to win again this year, because his strength in Baltimore and Prince George's County could fall off from four years ago.

With political problems at home in Prince George's County, Glendening might well regard Montgomery as his new base.

Glendening was Prince George's County executive for 12 years before he was elected governor, but his support there was weakened in a dispute with County Executive Wayne K. Curry. The governor and the executive have recently agreed to forget their differences, but polls have shown Montgomery voters more accepting of Glendening than those in his home county.

That is a most curious thing to Charles Worsley, a retired school administrator and former member of the county's Democratic Central Committee.

Glendening and Sauerbrey

"I can't imagine anything happening that would cut the umbilical cord between [Montgomery County Executive] Doug Duncan and this county," he said. Elected officials here say Glendening remains a hard sell -- so they argue that the "stakes are too high" to abandon him.

Many warn darkly of a Republican rollback on abortion rights, environmental protections and gun control legislation. "If [Sauerbrey] is serious about a 24 percent tax cut, an awful lot of valuable services will disappear," said David Davidson, a retired administrative law judge at the National Labor Relations Board who also attended the Neas event.

These fears sometimes offset lingering outrage at Glendening over the $273 million he spent constructing two new football stadiums; a generous pension deal he accepted and then renounced; and overzealous fund-raising exploits.

Even his fickle relationship with Clinton has not hurt him with Finkel and Davidson. Glendening publicly shunned Clinton -- and then embraced him when polls showed that the president's strength was more than 90 percent among Glendening's core supporters.

Several voters said they admired Sauerbrey's television commercials, which project a more moderate, compassionate image. But admiration for the ad man's art did not mean a conversion had occurred.

"She's changed her position on abortion," said Pat Williams, observing that Sauerbrey has pledged to do nothing that would reverse state law. "If she has changed, that's fine, but will she backslide?"

The undecided factor

She and Loretta Best-Harris, interviewed outside the Giant in Potomac, might be part of an unusually large number of undecided voters in Montgomery.

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