Maryland sure could use a candidate like this one

September 29, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

THE DEMOCRATIC and Republican candidates for governor strive valiantly to stir our imaginations.

But we're a tough crowd. We're quick to criticize, anxious to lament the quality of our choices and more likely to watch Friends than a candidate debate. Also, we're no sure bet to vote.

What do we want? What would an ideal Maryland gubernatorial candidate look like, stylistically and substantively? We haven't pursued that question far enough. Until now.

Deep thinkers have been constructing a model.

If ideal is unattainable, they say, perhaps some of the elements of the ideal might be adopted by the candidates we do have.

We'll call our dream candidate Jones or Candidate Jones. This ideal could be a man or a woman, but for ease of reference only we'll make him male.

We begin with the basics.

Mr. Jones would campaign without lawn signs or bumper stickers. He thinks he can't ask for the environmental vote if he litters. He also thinks name recognition is no substitute for a platform.

Mr. Jones promises to abstain from campaigning via recorded phone messages. He wonders why any candidate would want to be as intrusive and offensive as telemarketers. He thinks anyone who listens to one of these messages should have his or her voting rights suspended.

Mr. Jones will risk a few campaign slogans. He knows they can be empty vessels, but he's looking for an antidote to the "please-excuse-me-no-offense" campaign that makes leadership irrelevant.

If you disagree with Mr. Jones, he will try to convince you that you're wrong. He thinks that's leadership.

Mr. Jones wants a real people's campaign. What, he wonders, do voters think of his campaign banners, some of which were leaked to The Sun?

Proposed Banner No. 1: "Vote for Jones: Not a member of the Flat Earth Society."

Mr. Jones believes the Earth is round. He also believes Maryland faces a budget deficit. He reads the newspapers. Any slack was squeezed out of state accounts to balance the current year's budget. Unless we want deep cuts in current programs, something drastic will be needed to balance the books next year -- layoffs, lower benefits or a tax increase.

Mr. Jones thinks people may not be happy with these alternatives, but he thinks they know something is necessary. Recently, he notes, the candidates have been coming around to his way of thinking.

Suggested Banner No. 2 (corollary to No. 1): "Vote for Jones: He'll ask you to pay for your lunch."

The major party candidates cling, alternatively, to slot machine gambling and higher cigarette taxes as partial answers to the budget dilemma. Both candidates propose bailing out one form of gambling, horse racing, with another, the lottery or slot machines. Beyond that tail-chasing, they know this "found money" is not enough. But they want to defer more specifics until they're elected. Mr. Jones thinks that's backward. Information first, votes later. Then we know what sort of government we're voting for.

But there's a bigger issue. Mr. Jones wants voters to think about having gamblers and smokers paying for services. He thinks voters know they must pay for better schools, better roads, better mental health services, bigger prisons. They know gamblers and smokers can't carry the whole load.

He thinks voters have been coddled into believing lunch is free or that waste, fraud and abuse ate their lunch.

(Mr. Jones acknowledges he was once a member of the Cold Shower and Root Canal Party.)

Suggested Banner No. 3: "Jones for Governor 2002: Jones will debate anyone, anytime, anywhere, before any group, over and over until even the media cry uncle."

Mr. Jones believes in the free exchange of ideas. Debates allow candidates to show mastery, if any, of the job. Voters know they are electing someone to run a $22 billion corporation. Debates can be important introductions. Mr. Jones says Thursday's NAACP debate was a case in point. May we have more?

Mr. Jones knows a debate has been under way for months. People at candidate events and reporters raise questions far more challenging than any a candidate is likely to get in a so-called debate. Every smile, every bit of body language, every thrust and parry becomes part of the bigger-picture debate that is assembled like a mosaic in the voters' subconscious.

Suggested Banner No. 4: "Only one candidate promises to annoy somebody in this campaign: Jones." (Thursday's debate shows the Jones influence. Both sides were occasionally annoying to some.)

Mr. Jones laments a politics in which consultants balance voters on the heads of issue pins.

OK, he qualifies for membership in the Naive Party. Thursday's debate showed the value of consultants: Democrat Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend used them to her advantage, Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. did not. Of course, you don't know that if you didn't watch.

Maybe you'd rather choose a governor from the cast of Friends.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. He participated as a questioner in Thursday's debate. His column appears Sundays.

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