Image-conscious governor hits road to boost standing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FROSTBURG -- When the governor of Maryland grabbed the camera from Cindy Herzog's hand, she was too surprised to speak.

"Don't do it like that," chided Parris N. Glendening when Dr. Herzog tried to take his picture. Stepping next to her, he asked a bystander to snap the pair together. Then, with a quick handshake, he returned the camera and continued through the crowd.

It was a classic campaign moment, although this wasn't supposed to be a political event. Dr. Herzog, a Republican who didn't vote for Mr. Glendening in November and who came to see the Washington Redskins open training camp, was impressed, nevertheless.

"He's only been in office for a short time, and I'm not sure I had an impression of him yet," said Dr. Herzog, a professor at Frostburg State University with a doctorate in psychology. "Now, I think I like him."

Like the proverbial frog in the children's song, Mr. Glendening has lately gone a-courting. From the Eastern Shore to Western Maryland, he is hopping on tours and breakfasts, parades and luncheons, award ceremonies and dinners.

One day he pops up in Southern Maryland, breaking ground for a community college and then giving a speech to a business group. The next, he's addressing the Women's Suburban Democratic Club in Rockville.

He is making the rounds of radio talk shows, often piggybacking studio interviews during his forays around the state. He brings a message of jobs and economic prosperity, the same thrust as his election drive just eight months ago.

"Each day of each week, he's attending some public relations event," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's Democrat.

"It's almost like he's on another campaign," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat. "Given the situation he's in, it's smart."

That "situation" is this: He is a governor who started low in the polls and sank lower. After winning one of the closest elections in Maryland's history, having captured majorities in Baltimore and only two of 23 counties, he faced allegations of voter fraud and fought off a court challenge of the results.

Then came inauguration and the chance to define himself to a skeptical public. Unhappily for the former Prince George's County executive, what captured public attention were the generous pension benefits he and three of his top aides had arranged for themselves in Prince George's County.

By March, his popularity had plunged to a level matched by William Donald Schaefer during the former governor's worst political difficulties two years earlier. Just 18 percent of registered voters approved of Mr. Glendening's performance, the poll found, while 65 percent labeled it fair or poor.

The administration's response to this was initially to ignore it, calling it premature talk when the next election is more than three years away. But as the weather has warmed, Mr. Glendening has been spending less time in Annapolis and more trying to rebuild his standing across the state.

"He wants to patch things up," said Clinton S. Bradley III, a Talbot County councilman and Republican. "You can't blame him."

Last Wednesday and Thursday, Mr. Glendening landed in opposite ends of the state. On a 200-mile tour around the Eastern Shore, he assured officials in St. Michaels that the state would build a $9.5 million bypass there. Thirty miles south, he met the owners of a successful machine shop and then visited with a Salisbury black business development group before attending the 19th annual J. Millard Tawes Crab & Clam Bake and political fest in Crisfield.

One day later, he was on a train between Cumberland and Frostburg, then riding in an auto parade with Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke and the team, and later spending the evening speaking at a coal industry dinner.

"In light of his rather slow start, these are the things a governor ought to be doing," said Frostburg Mayor John N. Bambacus, a Republican and former state senator. "More people need to know who Parris Glendening is. They need to see he's a decent guy."

Maryland's rural counties may be the toughest sell for Mr. Glendening. He lost all of them to Republican opponent Ellen R. Sauerbrey, most by a greater than 2-1 ratio.

But at the public events he attended this past week, he was received surprisingly warmly. There were no boos or protests such as Mr. Schaefer occasionally confronted when his popularity was down.

No one in the crowds seemed particularly interested in pensions the latest scandal in Annapolis. But they are curious about their new governor, a man most had never seen in person, and what he might be doing for their community.

"I don't think the governor has been in office long enough for anyone to make an appraisal of him," said Robert Stipes, 62, a retired railroad employee from Cumberland.

In Hebron on the lower Eastern Shore, at Machining Technologies Inc., a small but growing business that machines parts for cellular telephone systems, officials were more interested in improving vocational schools than discussing politics.

They wanted Mr. Glendening to provide high-tech tools to community colleges so that graduates would be trained for their line of work.

"We don't care who is in office if we can get our problem resolved," said Tom Crawford, the company's program manager. "We just want to see the job done."

Mr. Glendening said he is thankful to be outside Annapolis where "insiders" view every move in a political context -- and that includes his continuing trips across the state. He doesn't see his forays as an effort to boost his standing, but as a way to exercise leadership and hear the concerns of his constituents.

"I like to be out in the community with what I call real people -- people outside the normal Annapolis circle of legislators, bureaucrats and lobbyists," he said. "If you only listened to them, you'd have no idea what is going on."

The rural areas, particularly, "feel neglected by state government," Mr. Glendening said. Often, what they want from a governor is not a lot of money or programs, but a measure of respect, he said.

"These are real communities, real families and real issues," he said. "I suspect a good number of individuals here probably have a better feel of who I am than the insiders in Annapolis."

Administration officials noted that Mr. Glendening did much the same thing in Prince George's County. Spending whole workdays outside the office, he left day-to-day management decisions in the hands of his top aide, Major F. Riddick Jr., who now performs a similar function as the governor's chief of staff.

Mr. Schaefer conducted such trips, too, but they tended to be more elaborately staged, with Mr. Schaefer arriving by bus, often in the company of a host of aides and Cabinet secretaries. Mr. Glendening tends to bring just an aide or two.

Still, Mr. Glendening has a lot of ground to cover, physically and politically, to restore his standing. In six months comes the next legislative session, potentially the most important of his term with a possible tax cut, casino gambling and gun control measures to be considered.

"I love this. It's what I wanted to do," Mr. Glendening said during his Salisbury visit. "I wanted to be governor to do some things, not just to win an election or re-election. If the state is doing well in three years, I'll do fine in the polls."

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