Will a murderer decide who leads Md.?

October 13, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

SO VOTERS move toward Election Day with the chilling accompaniment of sniper fire.

People have been killed and wounded in the Washington area over the last 10 days by a shooter with no discernible objective other than to kill.

The campaign for governor could be another casualty.

The candidates are hard-pressed to continue in such an atmosphere. Political speeches are tough enough to sell when it's safe to pump gasoline or mow the grass.

Appropriately solemn on the one hand, edgier still on the other, they soldier grimly on.

GOP candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., an opponent of gun control measures in general, felt particularly vulnerable when the onslaught began. He quickly issued a statement expressing sympathy and calling for quick police action. Some of the strongest anti-gun legislation in the nation had been passed here, he observed.

Was he taking credit for those laws? Hadn't he voted against them and, during the campaign, proposed to "review" them? Was he suggesting this case would test laws whose efficacy he doubts?

His Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, thought it was Bob Ehrlich taking outrageous refuge.

Both sides were vulnerable to the charge of politicizing tragedy, and both throttled way down on the rhetoric scale. People were dead or dying, after all, shot at gas stations or while walking to school or cutting the grass or waiting for a bus.

The Maryland shootings occurred in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, critically important jurisdictions where anti-gun sentiment runs high.

In a close election like this one, any issue or event could decide the outcome -- maybe by stopping the campaign in its tracks. Suddenly, one issue of importance could loom as the only issue. Less tangible concerns could recede.

But voters must find the capacity to consider other differences between the candidates. Many distinctions are quite clear.

Mr. Ehrlich favors slot machines at racetracks. Ms. Townsend rejects more gambling.

A Democratic administration will leave an appreciable budget deficit: $1.7 billion and counting.

Mr. Ehrlich proposes to erase it with revenue from slots. Ms. Townsend proposes to balance the budget by shifting funds around, tapping the rainy-day account -- and leaving open the possibility of a tax increase in the second year of her administration.

Given the state's fragile finances, both candidates have indulged in relatively lavish promises of new spending to important voter groups: aid to higher education by Ms. Townsend and to Coppin State College by Mr. Ehrlich; a prescription drug program for seniors by Ms. Townsend; a tax break for veterans by Mr. Ehrlich.

Voters will decide whether Democrats deserve to continue in power for another generation. Many believe Democrats have become complacent, arrogant guardians of a "culture of corruption" in Annapolis.

Somewhat obscured by the shootings last week, the State Ethics Commission barred a convicted felon and lobbyist from resuming his practice before the General Assembly. Some assumed Gerard E. Evans, a man with many Democratic Party connections, would be permitted to return, suggesting a level of resignation to the presence of corrupt activities. The commission scotched that notion.

What of the voters? Will they choose change or the status quo?

This election is about a continuing shift of political power to the Maryland suburbs of Washington. With so much of the state's population and wealth there and so much poverty in Baltimore, politics have become even more sharply polarized geographically and along financial lines.

A leader might wish to unify the state, but unity has hardly been mentioned. House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. talks about the importance of having "One Maryland," but he's not running for governor.

Ms. Townsend favors affirmative action based on race. Mr. Ehrlich is for affirmative action based on financial circumstances.

Mr. Ehrlich wants to reform the juvenile justice system, attacking the lieutenant governor's scandal-plagued stewardship in that critical area. Ms. Townsend says he has "hijacked" her reform plan.

Will the voters find the capacity now to consider these candidates and issues?

Will they go to the polls?

If the gunman isn't found, fear could grow and turnout could drop further. Either candidate or both -- and the state of Maryland -- could be hurt by that result.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears on Sundays.

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