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Shades of 1978? [Commentary]

On September 10, 1978, two days before the Maryland primary election, The Baltimore Sun published a poll showing Lt. Gov. Blair Lee III — who was acting governor in the wake of Gov. Marvin Mandel's political corruption conviction the previous year — leading his nearest Democratic gubernatorial rivals. Mr. Lee was ahead of Baltimore County Executive Theodore G. Venetoulis by 13 points and former state Senator and Transportation Secretary Harry R. Hughes by 14 points, with 22 percent of the primary voters still undecided.

Mr. Venetoulis had a Kennedyesque style that broke up the Baltimore County Democratic organization four years earlier, when he won the county executive position by running on a platform of change. Mr. Hughes, from the Eastern Shore, was an insider in the General Assembly who later resigned his post as transportation chief amid attempts by contractors to influence the building of Baltimore's subway; he had been endorsed by the Sun three weeks earlier. Both candidates were running as reformers against Mr. Lee, who as lieutenant governor, was identified with the tainted Mandel political organization.

On Election Day, to the shock of the Maryland political establishment and many pundits, Mr. Hughes pulled off a 20,000 vote upset, and later went on to defeat the Republican challenger, former U.S. Senator J. Glenn Beall Jr., in November, 1978 to become Maryland's 57th governor.

The question presented here is whether this year's Democratic gubernatorial primary, also having three viable candidates, has any similarities with that of 1978. The answer is yes, though there are differences, too. This year, the front-runner, Anthony G. Brown, is also the lieutenant governor, with two aggressive and reform-minded candidates — Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Del. Heather R. Mizeur, of Montgomery County — trying to gain ground by critiquing the two-term administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley. In the latest Sun poll, published this past Sunday, Mr. Brown has a 21-point lead over Mr. Gansler and a 26-point lead over Ms. Mizeur (41 percent voter support to 20 percent and 15 percent, respectively). Another 15 percent of potential primary voters said their were undecided, and 9 percent either selected "other" or "refused to say."

The relevant questions between the two Democratic primaries 36 years apart are whether either of the "challengers," Mr. Gansler or Ms. Mizeur, can gain traction in the final two weeks as Mr. Hughes did in 1978 (his numbers in two polls went from 4 percent in February to 20 percent in early September); who can get the Baltimore suburban vote (as Mr. Hughes did in 1978); and whether Mr. Brown as lieutenant governor will be hurt by being the front man for the rollout of Obamacare in Maryland. (In 1978, Mr. Lee, being Mr. Mandel's lieutenant governor, was saddled, fairly or not, with the governor's conviction.)

In addition, there is the question of undecided voters; in 1978, the number was 22 percent, while this year, it is 15 percent plus the 9 percent who selected "other" or refused to say, making a combined number nearly as great as 36 years ago. That makes the possibility of some movement for those trailing, and the chance that Mr. Brown could lose support in the final weeks. These are the possibilities for a repeat of something similar to 1978.

Now, what makes this year different. First, Mr. Brown has a bigger lead over his challengers than Mr. Lee did in 1978. Second, the O'Malley administration is not embroiled in a corruption scandal, and Mr. O'Malley has a 59 percent favorability rating among Democratic primary voters. (With Republicans, it's 84 percent unfavorable — another story for after the primary.) Third, demographics: Baltimore City appears to be in Mr. Brown's column, and being from Prince George's County, he can count on a greater percentage of total votes from the Washington, D.C. suburbs in 2014 than Mr. Lee could in 1978, although he was the scion of a Montgomery County political family. Also, if The Sun endorses Mr. Brown as The Washington Post already has, that might seal the deal for him.

Perhaps this is all wishful thinking for a historian and political junkie like me — to see a competitive primary race in this year's election, as it was back in 1978, the first time I voted in a state election. (My first election was the 1976 presidential election.) In 1978, the three registered voters in the house, my parents and me, each voted for a different candidate. And yes, my mother voted for Harry Hughes, the underdog, something she would remind us of often in the years to follow.

William J. Thompson is a history instructor at Stevenson University. His e-mail is wthompson@stevenson.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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