The Also-ran

For perennial challenger Ross Pierpont, being heard on the key issues is victory enough.

April 04, 2002|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

In the home of Republican gubernatorial candidate Ross Pierpont, a visitor tries not to spill anything on the white linen tablecloth. But then the candidate himself spills a glass of cold water, which manages to miss the tuna and roast beef sandwiches bought from nearby Graul's Market. The misstep by the 84-year-old Pierpont might easily be the only regret the candidate will have in this his 16th campaign.

When he assesses the 2002 gubernatorial race, the Woodlawn native and former surgeon will say he had no regrets about running. Winning - which has eluded him 15 times - seems beside the point. He filed; he ran; he lost. Along the way, he spent more of his money and knocked over a glass of water. No loss. Water dries, and campaigns end. There must be something more to Pierpont's 36 years of electioneering for mayor, governor, House of Representatives and U.S. Senate - no lower office for him.

Last month, shortly after he announced his candidacy, his wife of 60 years, Grace Schmidt Pierpont, had laid out the gracious lunch. Baby chocolate chip cookies were arrayed like fallen dominoes. A portrait in their Timonium home shows a striking younger woman who resembles a younger Grace Kelly. "People have said that," says Grace Pierpont, the woman in the portrait.

Her husband, who until this time (12:30 p.m.) has not called a time-out from his discourse about his main idea - "The Pierpont Health Care System" - stops to concur that people do say his wife looked like Grace Kelly. He smiles, as he should.

The candidate resumes talk of his dog-eared "conception-to-grave" health care plan, then meanders to the subject of past campaigns. "We got off track there," Pierpont will say. There's also talk of the future. Rep. Robert Ehrlich, a Baltimore County Republican, is also running for governor. "He's a good man," Pierpont says. "But this doesn't disturb our plans."

For the moment, though, it's interesting enough to discover a certain portrait's likeness in a dining room, where a nice older man eats on white linen and talks of four grandchildren, a 30-handicap in golf and those blessed Kennedys.

Do you really want to be governor?

"I never needed the job," says Ross Zimmerman Pierpont, who doesn't always lean toward direct answers. He will say, often, that holding elected office would have cost him a fortune in lost income from his medical practice and real estate and consulting businesses. He's a wealthy man who has spent more than $3 million of his money in pursuit of office.

"Don't get me wrong, I always ran to win," he says. "But I'm better off out than in."

Pierpont has been called a spoiler, a token opponent, a man of passion and conviction, a self-made millionaire and self-published man. He even once called himself a Democrat. Since 1970, though, Pierpont has been a "fiscally conservative" Republican. His name in the annals of Maryland politics is largely relegated to the bottom of news stories and voting returns. The name "Ross Pierpont" is duly archived alongside "perennial candidate."

Primary winner, but ...

He did win his share of Republican primaries, thanks in part to whopping name recognition. But he has been waxed in general elections. Daniel Brewster, William Donald Schaefer, Charles Mathias, Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski are among the politicians who have faced Pierpont and his often vitriolic attacks. In Cardin's case, Pierpont, in their 1986 congressional race, alleged Cardin "kingpinned" the state's savings and loan collapse.

"He knows he's lying and he just continues. It's McCarthyism as far as I'm concerned," Cardin once told The Evening Sun.

Pierpont, former chief of surgery at Maryland General Hospital, has had his share of personal controversy. In 1974, he was indicted for illegal drug prescription writing, a charge that was eventually dismissed in Baltimore Criminal Court. Pierpont, who was campaigning against Mathias at the time, wrote that the charges were politically motivated in his self-published book, Indicted. Pierpont's family also faced a death threat during this time.

Nothing remotely as controversial makes ink for Pierpont these days, not that the well is dry. His self-published autobiography is called Never, Never, Ever Give Up! He's at work on a manuscript titled, Jackasses and Pachyderms I Have Known. At 84, Pierpont doesn't lose sleep or tee times at the Baltimore Country Club worrying about alienating people.

"Ross is an old friend. He has some good ideas," says Richard Taylor, the national committee man for Maryland's Republican Party. But clearly, Taylor would rather talk about Bob Ehrlich's campaign. Pierpont's campaign is the "last thing" Taylor thought we were calling about. Still, "Ross is not hurting anyone," Taylor says.

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