Rubber chicken won't be the only thing the guests will be biting into at the May 11 fund-raiser for Rep. Helen Bentley. They'll also be chewing on this question: Will Mrs. Bentley run for governor or won't she?
The Second District Congresswoman has kept mum about her plans but is said to be interested in succeeding her pal William Donald Schaefer. Until Mrs. Bentley announces whether she'd prefer working in Annapolis or Washington in 1995, state Republicans are playing a game called Waiting for Helen. Odds are she'll stay in Congress, shunning the strenuous Ocean City-to-Oakland campaign for governor.
One of those people "waiting for Helen" will co-host her fund-raiser -- Robert Neall, the Republican executive of Anne Arundel County and a man widely held as a strong gubernatorial candidate himself. He, however, seems lukewarm at best about the idea.
With neither Mrs. Bentley nor Mr. Neall in the race, the Republicans could again be without any really solid candidates. That would be too bad for them because 1994 might offer their best chance in decades. The Democratic primary race is shaping up as a fractious affair, and if it's won by Baltimore's Mayor Schmoke, he would be vulnerable over the sorry condition of the city. He also might fail to carry the western and eastern parts of the state, where many voters would be hard-pressed to envision a black governor.
The other co-host of the Bentley fund-raiser will be Baltimore County Executive Roger Hayden, who, according to the Towson buzz, has his own thoughts of entering the Republican gubernatorial race. He probably won't take the plunge if either Helen Bentley or Bobby Neall becomes the GOP standard-bearer. But if neither does and the field is open, why not Roger Hayden? He's already building a large war chest, ostensibly for his re-election campaign next year, and he appears as substantial as any other gubernatorial hopeful the state Republicans could scare up.
Mr. Hayden could even claim to have history on his side. The last Republican to be elected governor of Maryland was Spiro Agnew, who did it 27 years ago while serving in the office Roger Hayden holds today.
Students of Maryland history might note other similarities between the two men in their county careers. Each was a Democrat who converted to the suburban religion of Republicanism, viewing it as the fast track to political power. Each was appointed to a county board -- Mr. Agnew on zoning appeals, Mr. Hayden on education -- before becoming executive. In the 1962 executive's race, Ted Agnew ran as a calm, can-do type who was above politics; in 1990, the year of the
anti-incumbent, Roger Hayden campaigned as a businessman who was pointedly apolitical.
And when Mr. Agnew emerged as his party's candidate for governor in 1966, it was as much the doing of other prominent Republicans who didn't want to be sacrificial lambs in an expected slaughter by the Democrats. But then George "Your Home Is Your Castle" Mahoney took the Democratic primary. Mr. Agnew,who couldn't help but look good next to the race-baiting Mr. Mahoney, won the general election by 10 percentage points.
Similarly, Mr. Hayden could sidestep some reluctant Republicans and end up as the party's nominee in 1994, sacrificial or otherwise. And like Mr. Agnew, he could be aided by the race issue -- in a different way -- if his opponent is Mr. Schmoke.
It's worth recalling that in conservative Baltimore County, where the moderate Mr. Agnew was seen as too liberal, he lost to Mr. Mahoney by 14,000 votes. Gubernatorial candidate Hayden could manage a comparable trick, given all the groups he has alienated -- the anti-tax crowd, county employees he has laid off and denied raises, and users of public libraries, senior centers and health centers he has shut down.
To the rest of the state, though, he could say he made these enemies by keeping his promise to streamline the local government. This would be music to the ears of Marylanders fed up with what they perceive to be a bloated, wasteful state government.
Certainly Mr. Hayden would have some negatives to overcome. He's a poor communicator, he lacks the charisma of other candidates, he went through an untidy, publicized divorce last year. But he could yet warrant consideration as a serious candidate should Mrs. Bentley and Mr. Neall decide to sit this one out.
Sounds crazy? Maybe. But crazier things have happened in state politics, and could happen still.
Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.