A one-term governor? Vulnerable: Anemic standing in the polls, policy flip-flops and an embarrassing fund-raising trip leave Gov. Parris N. Glendening vulnerable to Democratic challengers.


The temptation and the risk of political rebellion shimmered in the briefest of public moments.

A Maryland Democrat who wonders if his party's struggling governor can be unseated, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., was getting the sort of acclaim most politicians can only dream about.

A newly commissioned railroad car with his name in gleaming, foot-tall letters was presented to several hundred cheering supporters at the Cumberland train station. It was the weekend of the nearby Rocky Gap Country Blue Grass Festival and of Taylor's annual train ride and brunch.

Grateful for but wary of the hometown euphoria, Taylor will carefully calculate the odds of unseating Gov. Parris N. Glendening. The governor's anemic standing in the polls, a politically damaging fund-raising trip to New York and policy-making flip-flops leave him vulnerable to challenge from within his own party.

Taylor is joined on the list of potential challengers by three county executives: Eileen M. Rehrmann of Harford, Douglas M. Duncan of Montgomery and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger III of Baltimore County. Also included are Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and Nancy L. Grasmick, the state superintendent of schools. There are other contenders.

The most hard-bitten of inside political players in Maryland say the odds against anyone challenging Glendening remain high. The governor is a man of political skill who has been through elections in which opponents wore "Anyone But Parris" buttons. He has prevailed over and over.

Still, faced with what now appears to be chronic controversy, he looks more vulnerable. If he looks beatable by a Republican, Democrats will be emboldened.

Thus did Casper Taylor enjoy, even more than normally, another celebration of his favorite son status during this year's bluegrass weekend.

He had pushed the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad to completion. Running 17 miles or so uphill to Frostburg, it has been a smashing tourist attraction - a product of Democratic teamwork, he said.

He gets credit for the Rocky Gap festival and for a big project along the C&O; Canal as well.

He labored more than 10 years to get financing for a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course and convention center just outside his city.

Even before he became speaker of the House of Delegates, he had recruited big new prisons to help the chronically unemployed of these mountains.

Yet, he knows the reality. Outside Cumberland, his home turf, who knows him? How much name recognition does he have? Who would dare support him financially in a race against his party's sitting governor? Where would he get the big base of voters he would need to compete?

Even a weakened chief executive wields more power than the most eminent House speaker, even one with a railroad car named for him.

For the short run, Taylor speaks out against the governor when the opportunity arises. At the same time, he looks for subtle advantage among party faithful who are not naturally inclined to work against their party's standard-bearer.

Acknowledging the cheers after his namesake car was unveiled, Taylor gave credit to the man he wants to replace, not once but several times. As if anticipating a question in the minds of his friends, he said in regard to the railroad: "He signed all the documents to complete the work."

That signing power - ranging from judgeships to school construction contracts - invests a governor with immense power to do for voters across the state. A governor can stumble - as Glendening has - and still recover.

But, in contrast with Glendening's style, Taylor's "thank you" had value. In several public moments, Glendening has seemed unwilling to share credit.

Thus the speaker's message: "I'm not going to be like that. I'm going to give credit where it's due, even if I have to give it to him. If you want a team player in the governor's mansion, think about me."

Given his success at winning approval of local projects, Taylor might have the luxury of lashing out against the governor - in time.

But what of Ruppersberger and the others? How critical can they be of Glendening without jeopardizing roads or bridges or community centers they want for their constituents?

But he and Montgomery's Duncan will be careful to avoid the lean and hungry look of the candidate, at least for the immediate future. Both had nice things to say of Glendening, and neither admits to ambition beyond the successful completion of their terms in Towson and Rockville, respectively.

A former prosecutor with a forceful personality, Ruppersberger looks to many handicappers as a strong horse in political terms. He has a strong voter base and, though a first-term executive, a solid record. His allies are strong, and he would be a major threat to the likely Republican candidate, Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

Still, it could be too early for him. He's only 50; plenty of time to make a less risky run later.

Some in the party say Harford's Rehrmann is a strong contender. She cannot succeed herself after two highly praised terms in her current job. She has acknowledged interest in running for state comptroller, but the pulse of ambition beats strongly in the heart of the 83-year-old incumbent, Louis L. Goldstein. After promising to retire, Goldstein recently announced that he would run again in 1998.

So Rehrmann, regarded as a strong campaigner with issue positions that play well in the state's Democratic heartland, moves up in the mentioning game to the governor ranks. She has experience and a good track record. Unlike Ruppersberger and Duncan, she will be out of office and would have less to lose.

Each of these challengers will be warned that county executives, House speakers and even congressmen are less well known by far and less able, financially, to improve their name recognition against sitting governors.

Still, Cardin would draw wide support and plenty of financial backing if anyone thought he was available. Important Democrats urged him again recently to consider the race. But those who are close to him say he remains, after a decade on Capitol Hill, "of Washington." Maryland rejected his gubernatorial advances in 1986, and he is well launched in a new venue.

Speaker Taylor and any of the others under informal consideration would need assurances of party unity, some hope of annexing a political base and sufficient financial resources. Still, if Glendening's slump continues or deepens, the risk to a challenger would recede and the likelihood of a Democratic primary would rise.

The challengers may find some fortitude in history: Harry R. Hughes rode to the State House on a wave of public unhappiness over former Gov. Marvin Mandel in 1978. Ridiculed in the primaries as "a ball lost in tall grass," Hughes was found by Maryland voters who wanted change.

Some say the same sort of pressure is building now.

"The truck is ready to slam through the wall," said a one-time political organizer who is unhappy with Glendening. "It just needs the right driver."

C. Fraser Smith is a political writer for The Sun.

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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