Shootings cast shadow over Maryland vote

October 22, 2002|By Frank A. DeFilippo

MARYLAND IS no stranger to campaign gun violence.

The last time gunfire punctuated a Maryland election was in 1972, when Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace was gunned down in a Laurel parking lot.

Those five pistol shots shifted the tide of the election. From his Holy Cross Hospital bed, paralyzed and semi-conscious, Mr. Wallace captured the sympathy vote and won the Maryland Democratic primary election over George McGovern.

The following year, in 1973, Maryland adopted what was then the strictest handgun control law in the nation, which became the primary building block for today's sprawling menu of gun laws.

The original law, enacted with the support of Gov. Marvin Mandel, was proposed not because of the Wallace shooting, but in one of those toothsome twists by a black legislator, Del. Frank Conaway - now a court clerk - who was frustrated by black-on-black shootings in Baltimore City.

Once again, gun violence may be the fulcrum upon which a Maryland election turns. And the sniper, on the loose in suburban Maryland and Virginia, could very well help determine who becomes the next governor of Maryland.

The random shootings have not only narrowed the terms of the gubernatorial campaign discourse, but they have also shifted the campaign to Montgomery County, arguably the most ardently gun-shy county in America.

Montgomery, as every political hobbyist knows, is among the wealthiest, most highly educated counties in the country, with the largest concentration of doctorates on the planet. Its ethos is not so much liberal as it is goo-goo (shorthand for good government.)

The county has banned gun shows, and it once attempted to ban bullets. The county even has a nuclear free zone, Takoma Park. And Montgomery is home turf for former Rep. Michael D. Barnes, head of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the 8th District's only Democratic member of Congress since 1960.

Montgomery is also Maryland's most populous county (860,000) and therefore the state's political center of gravity.

It is Washington-oriented, sits in a separate media market from Baltimore, reads different newspapers, watches different television stations and - here's the kicker - sees completely different political commercials from most of the rest of the state.

It is in voter-rich Montgomery County that the battle over gun control is now being fought - in debates, on television and on radio - by the candidates as well as by anti-gun groups such as Brady.

Montgomery County is also part of the new triangle of Maryland politics, which, along with Prince George's County and Baltimore City, make up the winning Election Day formula for Democrats.

The county is 12 percent black and 40 percent minority, and is host to half of Maryland's Latino and Asian population, in addition to half the state's Jews.

So for Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Democrat, and Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Republican, the sniper is not only a killer but also an interloper who is helping to dictate the campaign's tone and tactics much as Arthur Bremer did when he gunned down Mr. Wallace 30 years ago.

Also, the campaign is just entering its get-out-the-vote phase. If the sniper is still at large on Election Day, Nov. 5, anxiety levels might heighten to the point of depressing the voter turnout to lower than customary numbers.

Nobody really knows the sniper's motives, but the unintended consequences of his actions are casting a shadow of uncertainty over the outcome of Maryland's election of a governor.

Frank A. DeFilippo, press secretary to former Gov. Marvin Mandel, has been writing about Maryland politics for 40 years.

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