Toppling the GOP and other election surprises

COMMENT

November 15, 1998|By Brian Sullam

REPUBLICANS IN Anne Arundel County are probably still wondering what hit them on Election Day.

Four years ago, it appeared that the county GOP was on the ascendancy, forcing Democrats on the retreat.

Republicans captured most of Anne Arundel's elected positions then. The county executive was a Republican. Four of the seven County Council members were Republicans. The GOP controlled the county's General Assembly delegation.

Earlier this year, conventional wisdom was that GOP dominance would continue. Not only did the party control county government, Anne Arundel Republicans were adding to their number of registered voters, narrowing the Democrats' long-standing registration advantage. Most political types thought that Democrats were long-destined to be Anne Arundel's minority party.

Now, the Republicans have their tail between their legs.

Forget about chatter that the top of the ticket -- the governor's race or the turmoil in Newt Gingrich's Congress -- triggered the GOP debacle in the county.

Sauerbrey's gain

Republican challenger Ellen R. Sauerbrey won Anne Arundel County this election as she did four years ago -- even winning more total votes than in 1994. Her margin was not as great, however. This election, Ms. Sauerbrey got 56.8 percent (87,134, according to the unofficial tally) compared with 60.3 percent (or 83,663 votes) four years ago.

Meanwhile, the Republicans who represent Anne Arundel in Congress -- Wayne T. Gilchrest in the 1st District and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in the 2nd -- had no trouble winning re-election. (Neither did the Democrats, Benjamin L. Cardin, whose 3rd District covers part of the county, or Steny H. Hoyer in the 5th District.)

County voters apparently did not care whether the GOP was unfairly targeting President Clinton. They chose Republicans at the very top of the ticket as enthusiastically as four years ago.

But something happened to these voters when they scrolled lower on the ballot, to county executive and other offices. There, they leap-frogged to the other party in large number.

School spending wedge

It's pure conjecture, but it would appear that County Executive John G. Gary's thrust to gain more control over school spending so frightened voters they didn't want Republicans in charge of financing education.

Democrat Janet S. Owens, who enjoyed a lot of support from teachers, clearly benefited from this fear. She collected 85,284 votes (again, the unofficial count) -- almost as many votes as Ms. Sauerbrey.

Ms. Sauerbrey's lack of coattails was a rather remarkable political development.

Republicans have always done well running for Anne Arundel County executive. Even though registered Democrats have historically outnumbered Republicans, O. James Lighthizer was the only Democrat elected county executive since charter government began in 1964 -- that is, until Ms. Owens' victory nearly two weeks ago.

County voters were comfortable with Republican county executives and Democratic-led councils. In 1994, voters allowed the Republicans -- for the first time -- to control both the executive and legislative branches of county government.

Voters apparently tired of that quickly. Now they are trying out a Democratic executive and a Democratic-controlled council.

Ideologically, this doesn't square with the county's strong vote for Ms. Sauerbrey.

Ideological soul mates

Mr. Gary was Ms. Sauerbrey's ideological soul mate. He even co-chaired her campaign and supports virtually all of her positions, from cutting taxes to cutting environmental and land-use red tape for developers and industry.

Voters dumped Mr. Gary and those identified with him, including GOP incumbents in the 4th and 6th councilmanic districts.

West County Republican Councilman Bert Rice lost to Democrat Bill D. Burlison by about 1,000 votes. Mr. Burlison, a former congressman from Missouri, had previously run for local offices in Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties for almost two decades without success. He was written off as a perennial candidate with no hope. Yet, it would appear that Mr. Rice, who voted with Mr. Gary most of the time, suffered from voters' distrust of the executive.

In the 6th District, William C. Mulford II, another Republican incumbent, lost to Democrat Barbara Samorjczk by nearly 2,000 votes. Like Mr. Rice, Mr. Mulford was a Gary ally.

The only GOP incumbent able to hold his seat was 7th District Councilman John J. Klocko III. Apparently, residents in Crofton and South County were not unhappy with his performance or his alliances with Mr. Gary.

The Republicans have four years to rebuild. In 2002, they will find out if 1994 truly marked the fundamental change in county politics they believed then, or if it was just an aberration.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 11/15/98

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