Roger Hayden's Opportunity


From late last winter until early last month, local political experts agreed that the public mood had not been so virulently anti-government, anti-tax, anti-politician -- just plain anti -- as it was in 1990.

But on the evening of Sept. 13, the date of the primary election, the experts collectively slammed on the brakes and pulled a 180-degree turn. The reason? The surprise victory in the Republican gubernatorial primary of Ellen Sauerbrey, she of the proposed tax cuts and government downsizing. Subsequent polls showing Mrs. Sauerbrey closely trailing Democratic candidate Parris Glendening have forced observers to wonder whether they underestimated the crankiness of the public.

News of this sort should be music to the ears of Baltimore County Executive Roger Hayden. The Republican incumbent can boast of having already done locally what Mrs. Sauerbrey aims to do statewide. In chronically cranky, conservative Baltimore County, a candidate with Mr. Hayden's credentials would seem a particularly good bet to win re-election on Nov. 8.

Recently, however, the executive's demeanor has leaned more toward whining than winning. Just ask the reporters whom Mr. Hayden has been snapping at for what he considers unfair press coverage. He even handed one reporter a list contrasting the positive statements the writer included in a profile of Democratic executive candidate Dutch Ruppersberger with the negative points the same reporter raised in a piece on Mr. Hayden.

It's actually not hard to understand Mr. Hayden's antsiness. The gubernatorial candidate on whose coattails he hoped to ride, Helen Bentley, was upset in the primary. And Ellen Sauerbrey likely won't help Mr. Hayden, given some of his political negatives and the fact that a top Sauerbrey aide is an ex-Hayden staffer coldly dismissed during the executive's February 1993 downsizing of county government.

In addition, there was the powerful primary showing by County Councilman Ruppersberger, who has the support of the major county unions, all of them still stewing over Mr. Hayden's layoffs of municipal workers and withholding of pay raises for three years. The Democrat swept the entire eastern half of the county, including the crucial east side precincts that line the road to the executive's office. Another pain in Mr. Hayden's neck: His opponent's home turf is the north county. This is the jurisdiction's most conservative area, and often easy pickings for a Republican candidate (or for a Democrat who, in Ruppersberger fashion, acts like a Republican).

Finally, there's the simple arithmetic of voter registration. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the county by a 2 1/2 -to-1 margin. That's why only two GOP executives, Spiro Agnew and Mr. Hayden, have been elected in Baltimore County since it adopted a charter form of government nearly 40 years ago.

Though the race looks uphill for Mr. Hayden, he has a good shot at re-election if two things happen: first, public anger about the size of government remains high and, second, he taps into that anger by reminding voters that, yes, he has made enemies, but it was precisely because he trimmed local government through cuts, privatization of services and reductions in the county work force. The potential popularity of this conservative approach is evidenced by Mr. Ruppersberger's avoidance of the Democratic label, his stiff-arming of Mr. Glendening and his trumpeting of his friendly ties to Republicans such as Mrs. Sauerbrey.

To stand a chance of victory, Mr. Hayden will have to continue the aggressive strategy he is using in debates with his opponent, staking out the center-to-right ground for himself and noting that he crafted the austere budgets of the past four years while Mr. Ruppersberger OKed them as a council member.

Even Mr. Hayden's negatives -- including a sexual harassment ++ charge that was eventually dismissed by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and recent brain surgery, from which he has apparently made a full recovery -- could be turned to his favor if cited as proof of his resilience.

Ironically, one trait the Hayden camp likes to call a selling point -- the executive's lack of political guile -- could be his undoing. A more charismatic pol might take the Hayden record and, in this climate, hit it out of the park. Mr. Hayden will have to get his story across, in his own style, to what he hopes is a receptive audience. How well he handles this task will go a long way toward determining whether he wins another term.

I= Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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