For Grasmick, decision boiled down to kids

IN THE DARK hours of Monday morning, the answer came to Nancy Grasmick, and all of the agonizing was done. She recalled all those long dreary nights when she haunted the legislative back rooms at the State House. She remembered Parris Glendening trying to tell her how to run the state's schools over the past eight years. She realized something. She didn't want to be like one of those people.

Until that moment, she didn't realize she had been fooling herself. When Robert Ehrlich's guys approached her a few weeks back about being his gubernatorial running mate, she had the normal human reaction: Reach for the prize. Leave a legacy. Not just about a woman's personal journey, but a legacy of turning the academic tide in the public schools.

As lieutenant governor, she thought she might have the power to do it. She'd have access to money she could only dream about as superintendent of schools. And then reality arrived.

"My whole career," she was saying Monday evening, after she'd told Ehrlich he'd have to look elsewhere, "I've resisted the interference of politicians in education. If I'd become lieutenant governor, I'd have violated my own principles. I'd be trying to run the schools from a position of politics."

She thought about Glendening, who tried to get rid of her. He wanted money for buildings and she wanted money that would directly touch children's lives. She thought about all those legislators who talked a good game but mainly looked to steer money for their home turf, and never mind anybody else's. They came out of both political aisles, missing the big picture, looking to score points instead of change the dynamics inside of classrooms.

"I thought to myself, kids aren't Democrats or Republicans," she said. "They're just kids. And we've got to look out for them, and put aside politics. And that's how I came to my decision. I realized, I have to be an advocate for them, and not for a political point of view."

She had to decide by Monday, because running with Ehrlich would have meant changing parties. Monday night was the deadline. She went deep into Sunday night, and the phone calls kept coming from people in both parties, and she listened to the counsel of her husband, lumber contractor and political fund-raiser Lou Grasmick, and the decision kept eluding her.

"A long, long night," she said. "Long after midnight."

For weeks, she'd had people banging at her from both sides: the Kathleen Kennedy Townsend Democrats, urging her to stay loyal to her old party, reminding her of Ehrlich's votes to block education money over the years; and the ones like John Paterakis, who puts his dough into politics and fumes because Townsend is anti-gambling and he is not; and Ehrlich himself, who had so much riding on her decision.

In his eyes, Grasmick wasn't just a running mate. She was to be seen as part of a tide, the first among many Democrats to follow who were seeing the light. She would give psychological permission to switch sides. She'd fit in with all those bumper stickers the Ehrlich people have printed: "Another Democrat for Ehrlich."

Even Republicans are being urged to put them on their cars. They have to. They know that, strictly by party registration, the Democrats outnumber them 2-to-1. So the idea is to create a sense of inevitability, which is partly based on wishful thinking and partly on political whispers.

The whispers are that Townsend's appeal doesn't go very deep, and that Democrats are looking for an excuse to bail out. Nancy Grasmick would have offered proof. She'd appeal to both Democrats and women. And she'd be an encouragement to those who are Democrats only because it makes them feel like part of the game. Grasmick's in that camp herself. She talked about it while pondering a run.

"I registered as a Democrat many years ago," she said. "In Maryland, it lets you vote in the meaningful primaries. The Democrats are so heavily registered, you feel a synergy with the rest of the public."

There are thousands just like her. Plenty of them crossed party lines to vote against Parris Glendening the past two elections, and some did it to vote against William Donald Schaefer. Schaefer still won big -- but not as big as he'd anticipated. It infuriated him to think of all those Democrats lacking party loyalty. (And never mind his own endorsement of George Bush the elder.)

Those are the Democrats on whom Robert Ehrlich is counting. But he thought he could count on Nancy Grasmick. And her decision not to run, and not to switch parties, will count as considerably more than one lost vote.

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