Havre de Grace.--Here in the outback, as elsewhere, we absorb the news from capitals near and far with a mixture of hope and skepticism. Currently, skepticism is leading.
We've followed the optimistic reports about progress toward lasting peace in the Middle East, the Balkans and the Horn of Africa, but we've been around long enough not to expect too much. Anyone who's been to a few zoning hearings knows that ancient antagonisms don't dissipate overnight.
For the same reason, many of us out here aren't as excited as we might be about next year's elections in Maryland. Although it's pleasant to speculate about what a new governor or a new legislature might achieve, those of us who've been through past elections aren't giving in to giddiness quite yet. Experience, even if it doesn't completely extinguish irrational hopes, does tend to cool them down.
Six months from now, the available choices may seem more appealing than they do now, but at the moment the crowd of candidates who think they should be governor is distinguished primarily by its size.
Consider the four leading Democratic candidates to succeed William Donald Schaefer. Two are from the Washington suburbs, one is the mayor of Baltimore, and one, the lieutenant governor, is from Baltimore County. All are professional politicians. From a non-metropolitan perspective, they're so similar it's eerie.
Each appears to be animated by a sort of unfocused ambition rather than a coherent political philosophy. This is all the more unfortunate because all four are evidently intelligent and articulate people who might say interesting and provocative things if they dared. The trouble is, for every potentially interesting proposal there's an influential Democratic pressure group that would be horrified by it.
For the most part, the obvious differences between the four Democrats are stunningly inconsequential, though the candidates display them with evident pride. One, state Sen. Mary Boergers of Montgomery County by way of Connecticut, is a woman. One, Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore, is black. The chief claim to fame of Lieutenant Governor Melvin Steinberg is that Mr. Schaefer, the incumbent governor who got him his job, doesn't like him any more.
One of the four, Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening, has done what seems to be a pretty good job running Maryland's biggest county, but to many Marylanders big ugly Prince George's is such a vivid symbol of what they don't want their state to become that it would be inconceivable to vote for him for governor.
Because the Prince George's population is increasingly black, it will be said in some quarters that these objections have to do with race, but they don't, much. They have to do with concern about the three giant issues: taxes, crime, and schools. Mr. Glendening hasn't been routed by these monsters, but his mere survival, while certainly an accomplishment, isn't likely to impress the voters statewide.
The Republicans aren't much better off. At the moment, they too have four candidates, but each has major problems. The two putative front-runners, in particular, suffer from the same lack of intellectual focus that makes the Democrats seem so unconvincing.
The nice-guy candidate, and the one Democratic politicians like best because nothing about him is overtly Republican, is Anne Arundel County Executive Robert Neall. Mr. Neall is bright, polite, and not hard right. He is the sort of Republican who often ends up with the ball when Democrats fumble it, but not the type who'll lead a take-no-prisoners charge.
The accredited hard charger is Rep. Helen Delich Bentley. But Mrs. Bentley is a loner, an aging, irascible infighter much like her patron, Governor Schaefer. In the bureaucratic jungles she's been very good at getting her way, but she's not a big-picture person, and it's hard to imagine her dealing successfully with the legislature. On the other hand, she's perceived as such a strong individual the voters might well decide to take a chance on her management skills.
The other two GOP candidates, William Shepard and Ellen Sauerbrey, are in some ways more interesting than the bigger names. But being interesting doesn't necessarily lead to being elected.
Mr. Shepard, a former foreign service officer without local political experience, came forward when no one else would and won the 1990 Republican nomination. Then, with little high-level support for what was dismissed as a hopeless campaign, he won 40 percent of the vote against Mr. Schaefer. He'd like to try again, but he won't have the anti-Schaefer wave to ride next year.
Mrs. Sauerbrey, the Republican leader in the House of Delegates, has more experience with the problems of state government than the other three candidates from her party. She has more edge than the affable Mr. Neall, and while she is personally less volatile than Mrs. Bentley, her genuine anger at governmental ineptitude and over-reaching matches the popular mood. But she's not well-known in the state.
These eight people will have a lot to say over the next year about Maryland's problems and what's to be done about them. One of them will probably be the next governor.
At the moment, unfortunately, the most reasonable response to that prospect is not a cheer but a sigh.
Peter Jay's column appears here each week.