5-year fight comes to end Sauerbrey abandons governor ambitions, will stay in politics

'Looking for challenge'

Defeated candidate considering taking GOP leadership post

November 07, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

After losing a spirited five-year quest that shook up Maryland politics, Ellen R. Sauerbrey said yesterday that she is giving up her ambition to become the state's first female governor.

Sauerbrey expressed interest in taking over the leadership of the Maryland Republican Party, which she has helped transform into a credible force in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1. The state party chairwoman, Joyce Lyons Terhes, is retiring in December, and Sauerbrey acknowledged that she is considering whether she wants to take Terhes' place.

"I'm still enough in a decompressed mode not to be ready to make a decision about that," Sauerbrey said as she said goodbye to well-wishers at her campaign headquarters in Towson.

"I haven't had much of a personal life in a long time. There could be a temptation to kick back but that would last me about 30 days. So the odds are that once I get sorted out, get my house cleaned, I'm going to be looking for a new challenge."

Around her, campaign staffers were emptying their desks, taking down photos and tossing "Sauerbrey for Governor" bumper stickers into a trash bin. Teary-eyed, Sauerbrey, 61, embraced a supporter and promised that she would not abandon all involvement in state politics.

It was not the kind of office dismantling that Sauerbrey had envisioned. Until Tuesday's election, she had counted on packing up to move to the governor's mansion in Annapolis, not back to her secluded home in northern Baltimore County.

Her polls had her up by one percentage point over Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening last weekend. But by then, Sauerbrey said, she recognized signs of trouble for her campaign.

She had been unable to effectively combat Glendening's harsh criticism of her conservative voting record on environmental, abortion and gun-control bills during her 16 years in the General Assembly. In the final weeks, while attempting to counterattack, Sauerbrey found herself on the defensive because of Glendening's television commercials calling her an enemy of civil rights.

No regrets

Sauerbrey said she has no regrets. In 1994, she nearly swept into office with her call for deep cuts in personal income taxes. Though she also made reducing taxes the centerpiece of her second campaign, she moderated some of her earlier positions and remade herself as a more personal campaigner. She tried to overcome her perceived rigid conservatism in hopes of capturing votes from the middle of the political spectrum.

"There are certainly people second-guessing that I lost the hard-core supporters," she said. "But I don't believe that. I don't think you have to abandon your principles, and I didn't, but I do believe a Republican cannot win without reaching out to moderates, to soccer moms, to minorities in Maryland. The nature of Maryland says you have to do that."

She blamed her loss largely on the unexpectedly strong turnout of Democratic voters in Maryland and across the nation who were unhappy with the Republican Congress' impeachment inquiry concerning President Clinton. The number of Republican candidates who lost offices nationwide gave her some comfort.

At this time four years ago, Maryland election officials were counting absentee ballots as an embittered, exhausted Sauerbrey refused to concede to Glendening. After Glendening prevailed by fewer than 6,000 votes, she unsuccessfully challenged the election in court. Investigators found sloppiness, but no evidence of her claims of extensive voter fraud.

In marked contrast, Sauerbrey is resigned this time. She does not want to dwell on the outcome. Instead, she said, she hopes to focus her energy on building a broader base for the state Republican Party.

Big donors

The party has been a large part of her life since the mid-1960s, when she gave up her teaching career. She spent years stuffing envelopes and ringing doorbells with a Baltimore County Republican women's group before joining the state legislature in 1978.

By 1994, when she decided to run for governor, she had so stirred up the state's political establishment that columnist George Will dubbed her "Maryland's Margaret Thatcher."

Her second campaign attracted big donors and nationally prominent Republicans, from Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey to former Vice President Dan Quayle.

"I think with this election we really changed the culture of the party," she said. "Maryland Republicans have had a belief for as long as I can remember that no one could raise money, and we certainly did. It's very different from my early days of involvement, when there was no farm team and whenever there was a gubernatorial election, the party was always casting about for some national figure who happened to live in Maryland."

In the aftermath of her second defeat, she said, she wants to relax, spend time with her husband, Wil, and clean up the piles of mail, political fliers and maps of the state scattered on every table in her house.

She also will head for Iowa to be with her mother because her stepfather suffered a stroke two days after the election.

She reaches for a favorite quotation: "When life closes a door, God opens a window." Then, though weary and somewhat dispirited, Sauerbrey musters the semblance of a smile.

"I'm just looking for where the draft is coming from," she said.

Pub Date: 11/07/98

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