Hopefuls running against the odds

Long-shot candidates for governor press ahead

`Have no chance of winning'

Election 2002

August 05, 2002|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

The majority of candidates running for Maryland governor and lieutenant governor don't have big campaign contributors, political strategists or television commercials.

And one of them hasn't even had a home for most of the past 10 years.

Yet, against all odds, the candidates are bucking the party establishment and conventional wisdom in hopes of becoming the state's leaders.

The candidates say they are motivated by the chance -- no matter how small -- that their campaigns will somehow spark interest in issues important to them. Besides, they say, this is Maryland, where any registered voter older than 30 can have a shot at becoming governor if they a pay a $295 filing fee.

"I kept thinking, How can you become a prophet today?" said James J. Sheridan, a Republican from Columbia who wants stricter campaign finance laws. "I decided it seemed like the most dramatic thing would be to run for governor."

One Democratic ticket and two Republican tickets are running in the Sept. 10 gubernatorial primary against the all-but-anointed front-runners for the nominations -- Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and their running mates.

Most of the low-profile candidates plan to spend less than $1,000 on their campaigns. They also say they are pressing ahead with the race, despite Ehrlich's and Townsend's huge advantage in money and name recognition.

Robert R. Fustero, a Rockville man who recently retired after 28 years as a grocery store clerk, and his running mate, Linda J. Atkins, a College Park woman who has been homeless for almost 10 years, are challenging Townsend. On the Republican side, Ross Z. Pierpont, who has made more than a dozen unsuccessful runs for public office, has selected party activist Sidney J. Burns as his running mate in a bid to upset Ehrlich.

Sheridan, 66, and his running mate and daughter, Kathleen Sheridan Linzey, are also running for the GOP nomination on what might be the state's first father-daughter ticket.

The candidates represent an array of issues, styles and personalities. But they all agree that the political parties and the media do the voters a disservice by not focusing on their campaigns.

"What, are all the voters of Maryland too stupid to make their own selection?" asked Burns, 61, who lives in Colesville.

Fustero, 51, expressed similar frustrations but believes his grass-roots campaign and populist message will attract Democratic voters.

If elected governor, Fustero said, he would cut taxes for lower-income workers, but increase taxes on cigarettes, gas and alcohol. He also supports legalizing slot and video poker machines as a way of generating state revenue.

On social issues, Fustero is for the death penalty and gay rights, but is opposed to new gun restrictions and abortion.

"The Townsend-Glendening administration represents big business and the big political machine, and my campaign is geared toward the working poor," said Fustero, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1976 and for Montgomery County Council in 1982.

Fustero has attempted to back up his message by selecting Atkins, 43, as his running mate. The two met about 10 years ago after Atkins lost her job as a manager at a fast-food chain restaurant.

About the same time, Atkins said her middle-class life shattered when she became homeless after a bitter divorce led her to become an alcoholic. She has spent much of the past decade panhandling on the streets of Prince George's County and living in a tent in a section of Riverdale that locals call "Hobo Hill."

"It's a struggle. If anybody ever told me while growing up that I would be homeless, I would say, `You are crazy,'" said Atkins, who says she has been sober for 16 months. "But when tragedy strikes, it really strikes. And it is not easy to get back on your feet."

Atkins is unemployed, but her boyfriend is helping her financially. The two moved into a motel in College Park this year.

While homeless, Atkins said she used a church address so she could be registered to vote for candidates who cared about the homeless and poor children -- two issues she would take up as lieutenant governor.

"There are so many hungry children" in Prince George's County, she said. "Everybody should count, not just the rich."

Atkins -- who still helps her homeless friends panhandle --and Fustero took their fledgling campaign to Baltimore two weeks ago. The two walked up and down North Charles Street in Charles Village handing out homemade campaign literature.

Like Atkins, Republican gubernatorial candidate Sheridan also is making his first run for office this year.

Sheridan's political inexperience showed from the beginning. After weighing a run for several months, he decided July 1 -- the last day he could register as a candidate -- to file with the state board of elections. But Sheridan, a retired federal employee, didn't know he needed a running mate.

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