A safe bet: In good times, don't throw the rascals out

November 05, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ON TUESDAY, which was Election Day in East Baltimore and the lesser parts of America, here was one of those moments capturing so much that we treasure in a democracy but which, for reasons unknown, seldom finds expression in the great textbooks of our schools.

"Sauerbrey," says this party of the first part, making his way toward a voting place off Eastern Avenue early Tuesday afternoon.

"Sauerbrey?" replies the party of the second part, smelling blood.

"Sauerbrey," says the party of the first part, a bookmaker by profession and therefore not to be identified short of a subpoena, "wins it going away."

"Twenty dollars," says the party of the second part, an honest merchant with a God-given instinct for the sucker bet.

"Twenty, you got it," says the bookmaker.

"Twenty?" comes another voice, quickly snatching money out of pocket. He produces a $20, and then two more bills, for $10 and $20 more. "Make it $50."

And so it goes in civilized America, on the day Parris N. Glendening, a man who frowns on legalized gambling (excepting, of course, the State Lottery in all its forms, and horse racing when its big guys are sending money his way), manages to retain his role as governor of Maryland.

Who knows how such things happen? For weeks, the street money said 2-to-1, Sauerbrey. Then, on Election Day, the talk was 7-to-5, a slight indication that Glendening had turned things around from early polls showing him neck-and-neck.

By the time election night arrived, here was William Donald Schaefer arriving at Democratic headquarters at the Harbor Inn at Pier 5, a large folder tucked under one arm.

"What's in the folder?" he was asked.

"It's my concession speech," the ex-governor and future state comptroller deadpanned. A small joke. Though Schaefer would be caught in midpout within hours (he was only leading by 20 percentage points, and imagines such numbers a personal slight), he was never in conceivable trouble.

Among some insider Democrats at the Harbor Inn, the early consensus thinking was: Sauerbrey's in. An under-financed unknown four years ago, she lost by only 6,000 votes and won all but three state jurisdictions. Now, heavily bankrolled against the least popular governor in America, how could she lose?

Now in the hotel lobby came some of Maryland's best-known Democrats, who'd helped make the state party one of the country's most powerful: Marvin Mandel and Kweisi Mfume and Willie Adams.

But they seemed, in early evening, mainly a reminder of the past, Mfume now running the NAACP, while the ex-governor Mandel and ex-political kingmaker Adams are well past their seventh decades. How would a Parris Glendening hold onto office with today's active Democrats, contentious and ambivalent about their own governor?

Who knows how? But, maybe 30 minutes past the closing of polls, here was a small piece of paper tumbling down from a third-floor walkway above the lobby of the Harbor Inn. On the paper were numbers, freshly garnered by a former state elections official who'd picked them up from Montgomery County and tossed them down.

The numbers said that, 30 minutes past the closing of the polls, it was all over. For here were Montgomery County numbers showing Glendening with nearly two-third of all votes there. Liberal, Democratic Montgomery County, to be sure. But, nearly two-thirds of the vote.

Minutes after this came Joseph De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, owner of Pimlico and Laurel race courses, a man whose stake in this campaign amounts to no more than, say, hundreds of millions of dollars. Per year.

De Francis, wishing to bring slot machines to his racetracks, walked in as though he'd been hit over the head by the Grand Canyon. For weeks, he'd been running "Thank you, Maryland" commercials on television. The thanks came from Delaware folks. They were thanking us for being lunk-headed over slots, which have brought marvelous riches to their state.

"Do you think," De Francis was asked, "this governor can find a way now to change his position on slots?"

"Are you kidding?" De Francis said. "At this point, he'd like to hit us with a 4-by-4."

Ironically, new polls commissioned by racetrack interests show a 2-to-1 desire for slots at the tracks. But the issue wasn't a burning one in this campaign. Neither gubernatorial candidate made much of it.

So how did Glendening pull this one off? "He brought home the urgency," Kweisi Mfume said at evening's end. "People finally understood what Sauerbrey stood for."

"The ads," William Donald Schaefer said, as he rode an elevator to a private suite after claiming victory. "They scared people about Sauerbrey. Plus, the man has a record of accomplishment."

And there you have it. When all else is stripped away -- the attack ads, the bitter language, the racetrack commercials mocking the hypocrisy of Glendening's anti-slots stance when gambling is everywhere from the lottery to the tracks to guys taking street bets on the election -- there was the matter of this governor's accomplishment: The state's in good shape. There's money around. People vote personal contentment.

And that's something you can always bet on.

Pub Date: 11/05/98

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