Glendening relishes role outside Md.

Governor to spend final year raising funds for Democrats

Will chair national group

He seeks gains for the party in battleground states

September 16, 2001|By David Nitkin | By David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Parris N. Glendening's final lap as governor will swing far from Maryland and into a dozen or more states as he collects and disburses millions in soft-money donations on a partisan mission.

Rather than spend his last months in office penning memoirs in a quiet corner of Government House, Glendening will lead an effort to elect Democratic governors throughout the country. He takes over as chairman of the Democratic Governors' Association in January and is committed to raising $30 million to achieve his goal.

Glendening and other Democrats smell opportunity. While Republicans or independents hold 25 of 36 gubernatorial seats to be decided next year, 11 of them will be without an incumbent because of term limits. Many Republicans forced to leave were first elected in the Newt Gingrich-era GOP wave in 1994, a movement long past.

And 12 of the 25 states were carried by former Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election.

"We feel we are going into this election with the issues on our side," Glendening said.

A winning formula will rely heavily on money.

Glendening - who himself must leave office after next year's election - said he wants to raise $30 million for the Democratic Governors' Association during the current election cycle.

Donations will come largely from corporations, labor unions and industry groups. While a change in federal law last year means that the governors group must disclose its donors, there is no limit to the amount they can give and no restriction on what can be passed on to candidates.

Advocates of campaign finance reform tried to change the rules this year, but the McCain-Feingold bill, a primary instrument of that change, failed.

"Raising money is one of the realities of politics," Glendening said. "We make sure we play fairly, within the rules. We will raise funds to help Democrats, just as the opposition will raise funds to help Republicans, based on whatever the rules for the particular state or national election laws are."

The GOP, he said, is promising to pump $40 million in party funds into gubernatorial races next year.

It's unclear how much of that money will come to Maryland, considered a solid state for Democrats. Republicans are outnumbered here by nearly 2 to 1.

And while Glendening is barred from seeking a third term under the Maryland Constitution, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the favorite to succeed him.

So instead of spending all his time at home next year, Glendening is expected to travel to Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and other states where Democrats should mount credible challenges to current GOP administrations.

Still, an organized effort to bring diverse states under one party banner is difficult to accomplish, said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.

"State elections tend to be driven by state issues," Black said. "You almost have to go state by state."

But B.J. Thornberry, executive director of the Democratic Governors' Association, said several issues cut across state boundaries - job creation, education and health care. Thornberry's message: Democrats are better able to implement programs in those areas, especially in contrast to the Republican White House.

Prominent and partisan

Historically, the governor of Maryland - which ranks 19th in population - would not be in a particularly strong position to carry a national message.

But only three of the nation's 20 largest states are headed by Democrats. Glendening takes over the association leadership post from Gray Davis of California, perhaps the most prominent Democratic governor.

Beneath a bookish exterior, Glendening's passion for partisan politics runs deep. His voice rises when he talks of his desire for Democrats to make gains.

A day before last week's terrorist air strikes, he was swinging wildly at the White House, calling President Bush a "court-appointed president," at a state Democratic Party dinner in Greenbelt. While the tone of his rhetoric changed markedly only a few hours later, the governor said he is still looking forward to a national debate on the environment and education.

"Until the crisis is over, we will be somewhat muted in our direct criticism of the national administration," Glendening said. "Once the crisis is over - and it will be - the issues, particularly the economy, will come out and the Democratic record will look extraordinarily strong."

A test in N.J. and Va.

An early test will come this fall, when Virginia and New Jersey elect new leaders to succeed Republican governors.

The Democratic nominees - Mark Warner in Virginia and Jim McGreevey in New Jersey - hold double-digit leads in polls.

Backing their words with cash, the Democratic governors have given $437,000 in money and in-kind contributions to Warner and $460,000 to McGreevey, Thorn- berry said.

Victories by Democrats there, Glendening said, "will give us momentum going into 2002."

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