Run for governor is no race

Analysis: Less than six months before the primary election, there is one major-party candidate and no debate on issues.

March 14, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Quick. Name the lone major-party candidate in the race to succeed Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

If you guessed Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, you're wrong.

The Democratic lieutenant governor still won't acknowledge she's campaigning. The correct answer is Republican Ross Z. Pierpont, an octogenarian who has run and lost 15 times during the past four decades.

With the primary election less than six months away, Maryland is experiencing a drought of candidates for governor and other top-tier elected offices. It's an odd occurrence in a state that prides itself on a spicy brand of politics, and one that contrasts sharply with states where September primaries are approaching.

In Florida, former Attorney General Janet Reno has been weaving her red pickup truck across the state's highways on a 15-day tour that is part of a quest to unseat Gov. Jeb Bush.

In New York, former Housing Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo and state Comptroller Carl McCall are deadlocked in a Democratic contest that party leaders fear will only help Gov. George E. Pataki win a third term.

And in Massachusetts, former Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich has assumed the outsider's role -- so outside that he failed a radio pop-quiz on naming the commonwealth's westernmost county -- in a five-way Democratic gubernatorial fight that includes the state treasurer and Senate president.

Maryland's lethargy extends beyond the governor's contest into other statewide offices and most of the eight congressional districts.

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer just turned 80, and Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. is 70. But no one is willing to argue in public that these political legends, both Democrats, are past their prime, that the state could benefit from fresh ideas.

What gives?

In one sense, Townsend has frozen the entire Maryland political field, says Johns Hopkins University political science professor Matthew Crenson. Her prodigious fund raising -- $3.1 million on hand as of November and more than $6 million raised in all, according to her staff -- has scared away much of the competition for governor.

As a result, there's little movement among the members of Congress and county executives who might otherwise pounce at an open governor's seat. Glendening is barred from seeking a third term.

A possible exception is Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Timonium Republican whose continued postponement of a decision on running for governor has infuriated some party regulars.

Townsend's financial prowess "tends to put the quietus on a lot of people's ambitions," Crenson said. "It's like dominoes. People's political ambitions are all in a chain. The uncertainty cascades downward through the political food chain."

The air of inevitability surrounding Townsend influenced Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, two Democrats who spent months raising money and exploring a gubernatorial bid before bowing out last year.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley is itching to enter the race, but must decide whether he has compiled a sufficient record during the past two years in office to move on.

Ehrlich, whose congressional district was radically altered by Glendening during redistricting, is under pressure from national Republicans to seek re-election to help the GOP maintain its slim edge in the House of Representatives. He knows he would face a difficult path in a state where a Republican hasn't won a governor's race since 1966.

Other politicians, such as term-limited Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry and Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, are keeping their powder dry. Both covet higher office, and would like to be considered as running mates on the Democratic ticket. Neither appears willing to challenge Curran or Schaefer.

With no full-fledged campaigns filling airwaves and Rotary Club luncheons, Maryland voters have been deprived of debate on a range of issues such as smaller classes, cheaper prescription drugs and better policing.

O'Malley, who says he will announce his intentions after the legislative session ends April 8, has observed what he calls an "appalling silence on issues of critical public importance."

It is created, he said, by "the huge amount of money that has been raised by the heir apparent, combined with the desire of a lot of people in leadership positions [in Annapolis] to tape up the budget for a one-year quick fix before the election.

"There's no discussion about more effective government at the state level," O'Malley said. "There's no discussion about the size of the state work force. There's no discussion about doing away with this token Maryland tax cut."

Instead, the 2002 political season remains an insider's game of raising money, collecting endorsements and parsing statements to divine the intentions of would-be candidates.

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