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Ellen Willis' challenge Carroll County: Dixon's replacement will have to buck conventional wisdom -- again.


GOV. PARRIS N. GLENDENING'S choice of Ellen L. Willis to fill the vacancy created by Del. Richard N. Dixon's appointment to the post of state treasurer hasn't quieted the political gamesmanship that has defined this selection process.

Instead of considering the competence of a candidate, Carroll's Democratic Central Committee and Mr. Dixon spent a disproportionate amount of effort trying to select a person they project can win the seat outright in 1998.

Perhaps it is too idealistic to think politicians would, or should, do it any other way. But to illustrate why party leaders and Mr. Dixon used flawed criteria, consider the hypothetical case had the governor appointed a clone of Mr. Dixon himself to fill the vacancy. The Monday-morning quarterbacks would have gleefully wrung their hands over that disaster. A black Democrat in unabashedly conservative and overwhelmingly white Carroll County? He'll never get re-elected, they would chortle.

Voters are not stupid. An incumbent who effectively represents the district's interest, brings home the proverbial bacon and doesn't offend the sensibilities of voters probably has a good chance of getting re-elected. During his 13 years in the General Assembly, Mr. Dixon proved that himself. Even though blacks make up only about 3 percent of the electorate, Mr. Dixon fashioned a legislative program and political persona that attracted white voters. He was returned to office three times.

Ms. Willis, director of business training at Carroll Community College, has not held elective office and is untested in the legislative arena. A Democrat party activist, she lost two bids for the House of Delegates, in 1990 and 1994.

She has a leg up, however. She is a member of the majority party that dominates the General Assembly. Her legislation will be given priority over those sponsored by minority party members of Carroll's delegation. Because her former husband is Mr. Glendening's top political adviser, she also has access to the top echelons of the executive branch.

In general, political operatives squander much energy on plotting future election strategy rather than on enacting public policy. If Ms. Willis operates effectively in Annapolis and serves her constituents, Carroll voters may buck today's conventional wisdom.

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