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Shepard runs as diplomat in scuffle for State House


All but ignored after leading the Maryland Republican Party to its strongest gubernatorial election effort in a generation, William Seth Shepard is running again and finding parallels for his struggle in nature.

Even as Mr. Shepard urged supporters to help him "Finish the Job in '94," a white pine in his front yard in Potomac suffered blight at the top.

"I would have taken the dead branch away, but I couldn't get to it. It's surrounded by poison ivy to which I am deathly allergic. So I just watched it. I thought the whole tree would die, but that hasn't happened.

"Another top branch came along, took over -- and took off," he says. He calls the new growth "a leadership branch."

"Darned if I don't see a corking good analogy to what's going on with my state party," says the former foreign service officer who turned to politics after his retirement.

The parallel he sees is this: the matriarch of Maryland's GOP, 70-year-old Helen Delich Bentley, has entered the race for her party's 1994 nomination, bidding to shove him aside.

Also running is Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey of Baltimore County, the House of Delegates' minority leader, who outpaced him in the party's earliest straw poll.

When he speaks of a leadership blight, Mr. Shepard, 58, is speaking primarily of Mrs. Bentley, with whom he has had a testy political relationship. When he speaks of a takeover, he is speaking of himself.

But some in the party say he should have recognized that, grateful or not, an increasingly strong GOP might turn to candidates such as Mrs. Sauerbrey and Mrs. Bentley who have longer records of party service and more electoral successes. Mr. Shepard was in Vietnam or Budapest as a foreign service officer during the years his opponents were progressing in Maryland politics.

"It's just a different year and a different time," said Del. Jean Roesser a Montgomery County Republican.

Moderate Republican

But it could be the right time, according to Mr. Shepard's Baltimore campaign manager, Samuel A. Culotta, who says that his party should see Mr. Shepard as the sort of moderate Republican Marylanders have warmed to in the past.

Mr. Culotta sees him as a Republican in the tradition of the late Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, a two-term mayor of Baltimore and a two-term governor, and Mr. Culotta's own personal political hero.

"Bill Shepard is a thoughtful man," Mr. Culotta says, suggesting that the other two GOP candidates do not measure up in that regard. "He's good on city issues and he wants to help us with education funding, which is Baltimore's only hope."

And Mr. Culotta is one of those who says the GOP owes something to its 1990 nominee.

The party chairman, Joyce Lyons Terhes, says that Shepard loyalists do remain. She will take no position in the primary, but she hears from others in the GOP who think that Mr. Shepard does deserve continuing support.

"They have not jumped ship and will not jump ship during the primary," she said. She gives him credit. While other candidates took months to make up their minds, Mr. Shepard "never stopped campaigning after 1990."

Dr. Mark R. Frazer of Huntingtown, a former Calvert County commissioner, says that Mr. Shepard is well positioned. If Mrs. Bentley and Ms. Sauerbrey split the women's vote, Mr. Shepard has enough support to regain the nomination, Dr. Frazer says.

In terms of fund raising, Mr. Shepard will offer himself as something of a reformer.

After many years of delay, the 1994 gubernatorial election will feature an experiment in public financing. The $2.7 million comes from Marylanders who checked a box on their tax returns, contributing $1.

So far, Mr. Shepard is the only GOP candidate who says he will definitely participate. Mrs. Bentley is expected to raise and spend millions more than she could get from the public source. Ms. Sauerbrey has left open the possibility she might participate in the public program.

Under the rules, a candidate may not accept individual contributions of more than $250. Those who reach the $142,000 qualifying threshold will get the same amount in matching funds from the state for the primary and about $900,000 for the general election. They are barred from raising any money themselves for the general election.

Mr. Shepard hopes he can capture the moral high ground on the issue of money in politics, but his opponents may point out that he raised only $119,285 in 1990. If he qualifies for the public money, he will have a far healthier campaign account than he might have had otherwise, based on his record.

He is also running as the most reasonable candidate. He says his diplomatic experience equips him well to be a conciliator in the State House, reaching across party lines in a way that will be increasingly necessary if the state is to prosper, particularly at a time when Republicans are inching toward influence in the General Assembly.

What would Mrs. Bentley bring to the State House?

He asks the question and then quickly answers it:

The same cranky style Maryland has grown weary of under Gov. William Donald Schaefer, he says.

Her presence in the race has helped him, he says, because it reminds voters how much they want change. "I tend to have more serious conversations with people now."

Four years ago, Mr. Shepard had the party's nomination for the asking until he named his wife, Lois, as his running mate.

That choice, forced on him in part by a dearth of candidates willing to run a long-shot race, resulted in a primary opponent. Ross Z. Pierpont, the retired surgeon who has run for a number of public offices over the last 30 years, ran at Mrs. Bentley's behest. Mr. Shepard barely won.

Caught a wave

His solid 40 percent of the vote against Mr. Schaefer in the general election is widely discounted. Characterizing Mr. Shepard's performance as a fluke, many say he simply caught a wave of anger and disgust that swept away many incumbents. He does not doubt that the mood of the voters influenced his showing.

As for running with his wife, he believes he was ahead of his time. Though some think his percentage might have been several points higher with a different running mate, he thinks he would have done "worse, clearly worse."

Ms. Terhes, among others, disagrees. "The country isn't ready for Hilary and Billary in the White House, and Maryland wasn't ready for Lois and Bill," she says.

Mr. Shepard says he won't test his conviction again by putting his wife on his ticket. "Somebody has to earn a living," he says. She is currently running an international trade consulting business. His federal pension, he says, does not cover all their needs.

After the 1990 race, he spent six months raising money from friends and supporters to retire a campaign debt of $30,000. At the same time, he traveled the state thanking people for their support.

During the last year of George Bush's presidency, Mr. Shepard was a consultant to the Agriculture Department.

He looks back on the 1990 race with satisfaction. He predicted the incessant revenue shortfalls that have afflicted Mr. Schaefer for most of his second term.

"I went around saying we were in actual deficit throughout the campaign year because I thought various entitlements were under-funded. People began to understand the denials and what we had been saying. I kept under-stating the shortfall, saying $250 million and then $300 million. At one point I said, 'Why don't we cross out the figures and say, 'Watch this space.' "

The Schaefer administration failed to manage the state's finances properly in part because it refused to discuss alternative policies -- with candidate Shepard during the 1990 campaign and with legislators afterward, Mr. Shepard says.

"People want a governor who can talk to people," he says. "It will be a disaster if we get someone else who cannot."

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