Run for governor is no race

Sun Staff

Quick. Name the lone major-party candidate in the race to succeed Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

If you guessed Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, you're wrong.

The Democratic lieutenant governor still won't acknowledge she's campaigning. The correct answer is Republican Ross Z. Pierpont, an octogenarian who has run and lost 15 times during the past four decades.

With the primary election less than six months away, Maryland is experiencing a drought of candidates for governor and other top-tier elected offices. It's an odd occurrence in a state that prides itself on a spicy brand of politics, and one that contrasts sharply with states where September primaries are approaching.

In Florida, former Attorney General Janet Reno has been weaving her red pickup truck across the state's highways on a 15-day tour that is part of a quest to unseat Gov. Jeb Bush.

In New York, former Housing Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo and state Comptroller Carl McCall are deadlocked in a Democratic contest that party leaders fear will only help Gov. George E. Pataki win a third term.

And in Massachusetts, former Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich has assumed the outsider's role -- so outside that he failed a radio pop-quiz on naming the commonwealth's westernmost county -- in a five-way Democratic gubernatorial fight that includes the state treasurer and Senate president.

Maryland's lethargy extends beyond the governor's contest into other statewide offices and most of the eight congressional districts.

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer just turned 80, and Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. is 70. But no one is willing to argue in public that these political legends, both Democrats, are past their prime, that the state could benefit from fresh ideas.

What gives?

In one sense, Townsend has frozen the entire Maryland political field, says political science professor Matthew Crenson. Her prodigious fund raising -- $3.1 million on hand as of November and more than $6 million raised in all, according to her staff -- has scared away much of the competition for governor.

As a result, there's little movement among the members of Congress and county executives who might otherwise pounce at an open governor's seat. Glendening is barred from seeking a third term.

A possible exception is Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Timonium Republican whose continued postponement of a decision on running for governor has infuriated some party regulars.

Townsend's financial prowess "tends to put the quietus on a lot of people's ambitions," Crenson said. "It's like dominoes. People's political ambitions are all in a chain. The uncertainty cascades downward through the political food chain."

The air of inevitability surrounding Townsend influenced Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, two Democrats who spent months raising money and exploring a gubernatorial bid before bowing out last year.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley is itching to enter the race, but must decide whether he has compiled a sufficient record during the past two years in office to move on.

Ehrlich, whose congressional district was radically altered by Glendening during redistricting, is under pressure from national Republicans to seek re-election to help the GOP maintain its slim edge in the House of Representatives. He knows he would face a difficult path in a state where a Republican hasn't won a governor's race since 1966.

Other politicians, such as term-limited Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry and Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, are keeping their powder dry. Both covet higher office, and would like to be considered as running mates on the Democratic ticket. Neither appears willing to challenge Curran or Schaefer.

With no full-fledged campaigns filling airwaves and Rotary Club luncheons, Maryland voters have been deprived of debate on a range of issues such as smaller classes, cheaper prescription drugs and better policing.

O'Malley, who says he will announce his intentions after the legislative session ends April 8, has observed what he calls an "appalling silence on issues of critical public importance."

It is created, he said, by "the huge amount of money that has been raised by the heir apparent, combined with the desire of a lot of people in leadership positions [in Annapolis] to tape up the budget for a one-year quick fix before the election.

"There's no discussion about more effective government at the state level," O'Malley said. "There's no discussion about the size of the state work force. There's no discussion about doing away with this token Maryland tax cut."

Instead, the 2002 political season remains an insider's game of raising money, collecting endorsements and parsing statements to divine the intentions of would-be candidates.

"Kathleen is running a campaign, and she's smart enough not to announce it because she wants to go on television," said Schaefer, the former mayor and governor.

"On the Republican side, Bob Ehrlich ... has already made up his mind, and he's doing the same thing. He's saying 'I'm exploring it,' but he's setting up the whole campaign strategy. He's talking with the president," Schaefer said.

"Martin's doing the same thing. He's calling everybody to raise funds. ... He's setting up a campaign organization that would be available in case he decides to run for governor.

"So there is no apparent activity," Schaefer said. "But there is much activity."

A shortened campaign season can sometimes be beneficial to a candidate. O'Malley was a late entry in the 1999 mayor's race and quickly lapped a faltering field. But for the most part, developing an organization and disseminating a message take time, said Kevin Igoe, a Maryland GOP strategist.

"It takes a while to drive home a message to an average voter," Igoe said. "It doesn't happen overnight, or even in a couple of weeks."

In a long campaign, voters can benefit because "people will get a broader knowledge base," he said.

A more active phase could be just around the corner. Ehrlich appears poised to announce his decision on or about March 25, and smart money is on him to enter the race. If he does, he'll start talking about transportation and the size and efficiency of state government -- and he says there's still plenty of time for discussion.

"People right now are clearly looking at national issues. The war and Enron are dominating the agenda," Ehrlich said. "The legislative session gets out in April. Most of the candidates will be announced in May. ... We'll have plenty of debates."

The last time Maryland saw an open governor's race, in 1994, jockeying began nearly two years before the election. Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg was the early favorite for the Democratic nomination, but ran a poor campaign. Curran and then-Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke considered getting in the primary, but demurred.

The GOP side featured a hard-fought primary between former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley and then-Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

The race was won by Glendening, a dark horse early on, who says times are different now. He implies that he should get much of the credit for putting the state on a course people don't want to alter.

"You see ... a strong consensus in so many different quarters to continue [under Townsend] the policies that we have," Glendening said. "You also see the Republicans struggling to find a candidate. Presumably they are going to have someone later this month.

"There's no overwhelming sense of 'Let's change policy. Let's move in a different direction,'" Glendening said. "If there were, you can be certain there would be all kinds of candidates running for office in both parties."

Crenson, the Hopkins professor, isn't sure he buys that theory.

"Silence can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways. That's one of the great things about it," he said. "It could be apathy, or indifference, or disillusionment."

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