The realities of running

Nitty-gritty: Public interest groups offer help and education to political hopefuls.

November 07, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The lofty goals envisioned by people interested in running for public office are often a far cry from the gritty realities of getting elected, as people such as Mary Beth Tung are learning.

"Issues are very important - about 5 percent worth," Del. Robert H. Kittleman, the House minority leader, told a gathering of Republicans recently at the Savage branch library. Knocking on 10,000 doors is what will get you elected, he said.

But despite the mind-numbing sign waving and door knocking that can eat up a candidate's personal life, groups interested in government are trying to attract good recruits with educational sessions and personal advice.

The Howard County League of Women Voters and Vision-Howard County, nonpartisan public interest groups, are sponsoring a seminar, "The Decision to Run," on Nov. 17 at school board headquarters. Former County Executive and Maryland gubernatorial candidate Charles I. Ecker, five-term County Councilman C. Vernon Gray and other officials will talk to prospective candidates and their advisers.

Political parties, state election officials and the Maryland Chamber of Commerce are also offering help and instruction designed to encourage more people to run. The chamber has a three-hour session on ethics scheduled for Nov. 15 in Annapolis, and election officials are ready to teach candidates about campaign finance laws and reports, said Linda Lamone, state board administrator.

"It's early enough in the game" to have an impact on people's decisions, said Betsy Grater, League of Women Voters co-president with former Del. Sue Buswell.

Tung, of Clarksville, is a two-year Howard resident making her first elective run, and as a Republican in the heavily Democratic west Columbia County Council district, she needs all the help she can get.

"I get to know people pretty quickly," said the Republican activist, patent agent and mother of two - just the kind of person any political party would love to attract.

"School is a big issue for me," said Tung, an Ohio native with two children at crowded Pointers Run Elementary School. Preserving rural land by encouraging a good mix of development and open land is, too, she said. Tung said her background as a medical researcher, teacher, Girl Scout leader and mother could appeal to voters of any affiliation. And she said she knows local issues.

Candidates have to know the issues, of course, Kittleman said, but they are not the key to winning voters' hearts and minds.

Victory, prospective candidates were told, is decided in that first 30 seconds after knocking on each one of about 10,000 doors.

"In 30 seconds, the person has to feel like you're intelligent enough to do the job - and dedicated - not someone who's a kook or they'd be ashamed of. And you should be affable and approachable. They've got to feel like, `If I had a problem I could go talk to him or her about it,'" said Kittleman, who has been traveling the state recruiting candidates.

Howard's Democrats offer help and advice to candidates, too, said party Chairwoman Wendy Fiedler.

"Along the way, we'll have candidate workshops and link them with help on media. We'll do a training on voter files," showing new candidates about voting and registration patterns, she said.

"More first-time candidates are new to that campaign experience, but I do feel like the mechanism is there to help them learn very quickly," Fiedler said.

Michele Williams, a Democrat running for County Council from east Columbia, is getting help from Columbia Democratic Club, to which she belongs, she said.

"You just have to get out there and be willing to learn. You'd be surprised how many people are willing to help," she said.

Mary Kay Sigaty, another first-time County Council candidate who lives in Wilde Lake, said she plans to attend the league's seminar to learn more about how to run a campaign.

With more Democrats than Republicans registered to vote in Howard, the GOP is particularly interested in recruiting attractive, energetic candidates as a long-term way to build a stronger party.

Kittleman said that he has been tutoring Republican candidates for 15 years and that he knows more about the street-level demands of a campaign than the League of Women Voters is likely to cover.

"They've got to want it. And they've got to have their spouses' support." Without that, they're likely to suffer a divorce in the middle of a campaign, Kittleman said of candidates.

Tung said she is ready for the grueling hours of campaigning and has a commitment from her husband to help care for their children while she is out seeking votes.

Money is another must. Enough is needed to buy brochures, bumper stickers and signs and to pay for mailings.

Howard league officials said their nonpartisan purpose is to attract more good people to the process as a way of keeping the American form of government strong.

"We would like to encourage candidates who are able to add something," league co-President Buswell said. "It responds to the kind of things we want - active involvement of citizens."

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