Brock's record mostly a secret to Marylanders

Out there in the political chill stands Bill Brock, plaintively asking why Paul Sarbanes won't come outside and talk to him in public. Brock should know better. Sarbanes is one of the quiet men of the U.S. Senate. But if he starts to talk, he might mention a whole history that Bill Brock would rather nobody notice.

Brock's been dancing around that history. He's 63 years old, and he's been in the political business for three decades, but not so that many around here would notice. He runs television commercials every day now boasting of his political profile. The commercials do not mention the state of Tennessee, where he constructed most of this profile. They boast of Brock helping inner-city students. They do not mention the old misuses of race.


For two weeks now, Brock asks Sarbanes to debate him in public. Sarbanes pretends not to notice. Brock says the citizens of Maryland deserve an airing of ideas. On this, he happens to be right. But he runs a big risk: There's no statute of limitations on his own history of ideas.

In Brock's television commercials, he surrounds himself with kids at Lake Clifton High School. This is designed to make Brock look as if he could find the place on his own. A voice says Brock has "given inner-city students new skills and new hope." This is known as a selective memory.


Thirty years ago, when the country was choosing up sides on the issue of racial fairness, it was Brock, a freshman congressman from Tennessee, who voted against 1964's landmark Civil Rights Act, allowing black people the simple right to public accommodations -- things like restaurants and movie houses -- enjoyed by white people but arbitrarily denied to generations of nonwhites.

The country's still trying to work out its racial uneasiness. The new Brock says he blew it on the '64 vote. He talks of "redemption." His campaign aides say he made a simple mistake. It's not that he didn't want desegregation, he says, it's just that he didn't think the federal government should get involved.

Since then, he says, he's grown. He doesn't mention his 1970 run for a U.S. Senate seat. The historians say he played on racial fears in Tennessee in his campaign against Sen. Albert Gore Sr. Brock says the historians make too much of it. His campaign aides say 1970 was a long time ago. They call him "equality-driven" now.

In fact, when Brock served as Ronald Reagan's labor secretary in the mid-1980s, and Attorney General Edwin Meese tried to abolish affirmative action guidelines for federal contractors, Brock fought him. But he was giving with one hand and taking with the other. Vast numbers of black teen-agers couldn't find jobs. Brock said this was a terrible problem for the nation. But, while he was saying it, he was backing cuts in the Job Corps program.

The newest Mason-Dixon poll says Brock's running 23 points behind Sarbanes. Brock swallows hard and calls this encouraging. He says people are finding out who he is. This gets him closer to the truth. His name recognition problem comes from a history that barely touches the state of Maryland.

It includes Tennessee, which elected him to office for 14 years, and Washington, D.C., where he served on Capitol Hill and as U.S. labor secretary and special trade representative for the Reagan administration, which allows him to make the advertising claim that he fought for jobs for Maryland.

In his television ads, Brock strolls through the local scenery. He seems to know his way around. The ads never mention that he's been a full-time resident only since 1990, nor that he first told reporters that he'd moved here in 1985. In either case, he's vulnerable to charges of carpetbagging.

He stands in the political chill now and says Paul Sarbanes should talk to him in public. Sarbanes has spent his entire political life in Maryland. Brock wants a series of six debates before Election Day. Sarbanes says nothing at all.


This is the posture of all those with substantial leads and those, like Sarbanes, who do not sparkle in public speaking. Sarbanes is an intellectual and something of an introvert. Some say he's so low-key as to be invisible. Some say he's too liberal. He is low key, and he is liberal, and there isn't any question about it. Brock's people point out that Sarbanes has backed Bill Clinton more than Ted Kennedy or George Mitchell or anybody else you can name has. He's done it roughly 97 percent of the time.

But all of this surprises no one. Sarbanes' record has been out there from the start. People know him, and keep voting for him. The Brock record, whatever it is, comes from places in the distance. Some of it, he'd rather not talk about. Some of it, he wishes to dance around. Whatever it is, good or bad, most of it's a secret to people in Maryland. And this is his biggest problem.