At heart of campaign is chance for change

October 27, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

REP. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr. runs against the amoral landscape of Annapolis, structuring his appeal in the context of its byproduct, a projected $1.7 billion budget deficit.

He offers no lofty vision, choosing to concentrate on measures that will put the government's house in order. He is obliged to focus on finances, to limit promises and to avoid grand designs.

Against his opponent's patchwork budget plan, he proposed similar quick fixes -- cushioned by revenue from slot machines at the racetracks. The new money would allow him to fill the gaping holes left by Democratic inattention.

He wants to clean up the Chesapeake Bay by improving wastewater and sewer systems -- neglected, he charges, by the Glendening administration. He wants to focus on improving the health care system, also back-burnered in recent years. He wants to reform the chronically troubled juvenile justice system.

He presents himself as a moderate -- a dubious claim. His opponent, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, has spent much of the campaign attacking his voting record. She's succeeded in defining him as a conservative. But how damaging has that been? She remains tied with him in a state where her party has a 2-1 advantage in voter registration.

Marylanders are left to ask themselves in these last 10 days of the campaign if they prefer his record of conservatism or her record as leader of a Democratic Party suffering from an array of self-inflicted wounds.

Mr. Ehrlich promises the most fundamental kind of political change, the kind our system relies on: change away from one party, suffering the disabilities of unchallenged power, to another promising a new day.

He promises rectitude -- and effectiveness. He served in the House of Delegates, so he knows how Annapolis works. Too well, say his opponents: He has to answer for a few Democratic friends caught in the culture of corruption. Ms. Townsend has to explain the entire culture.

She has had to overcome the view that her candidacy is something of a political accident. She runs for governor never having won political office on her own. Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a wonkish university professor in need of Kennedy family glitter, made her his running mate eight years ago. There's irony here: She helped him, while his falling popularity hurts her.

But more fundamental problems have plagued her campaign. Pressed for issue positions, she began with rote recitations of campaign brochures. Asked repeatedly during an early radio interview to explain how she would deal with the deficit, she said, "We'll figure it out."

But near the end of this sniper-interrupted campaign, she began to raise her game. In the only televised debate, an audience saw nothing less than a metamorphosis. She performed so far beyond expectations that she seemed a new person.

Mr. Ehrlich saw her initial floundering as verification of his decision to run. He expected her to be weak. His strategy: Let her flounder. He overplayed that hand during the debate, when she won almost all of the points.

But grasp of the issues is only half her problem. She is the candidate of a state party that changed political religions, a party that had begun to worship at the altar of tax cuts. It's a party that feared Republicans enough to surrender its franchise: seeing poverty as shameful in the midst of affluence, attending to the needs of cities where Democratic votes are taken for granted, and assisting the metaphorical village as it raises the children.

Maryland Democrats ended up with the worst of both worlds. They turned out to be lousy Republicans. They cut taxes, reducing the ability to help the needy, and then failed to provide more efficient government. They watched the state slip beneath a tide of red ink. Fearful of election year retribution, they raced to send a massive infusion of dollars into Maryland classrooms -- with no money to pay the bill. They would figure it out.

At the same time, they were presiding over a troubling atmosphere in Annapolis. U.S. District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz called it a "culture of corruption." He was not talking of law-breaking alone. The permissive culture, after more than 30 years of one-party rule, was often on public display.

Most recently, the Court of Appeals took control of the process in which election districts are rebalanced to reflect population changes. By using the map to reward friends and punish enemies, Democrats failed at an essential chore.

Against that record come Mr. Ehrlich and his African-American running mate, Michael S. Steele, calling themselves "the Opportunity Ticket."

The most important opportunity here is the opportunity for change.

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

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