CHEVY CHASE -- Three of Maryland's highest-ranking county officials and two of its wealthiest businessmen met for dinner here last night and denied that anything extraordinary -- certainly not dumping a governor -- had brought them together.
Each of the politicians has been mentioned as a possible opponent for Gov. Parris N. Glendening in the 1998 Democratic primary, and both businessmen have been critical of Glendening's leadership.
But last night they said they simply were eager to exchange views on the future of Maryland.
"We had a very constructive meeting," said Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, emerging after 2 1/2 hours. "We talked about issues affecting the state of Maryland and how we can help the governor."
He said the group would meet again next month with more county and business leaders to discuss Maryland's economic competitiveness and that the governor will be invited to that meeting.
Last night's host, Stewart Bainum Jr., a former state senator and now head of Manor Care Inc., a nursing home and hotel company, suggested earlier this week that Glendening might be vulnerable in 1998 to a Republican challenger, one who might win by a wide enough margin to lead a GOP takeover of the heavily Democratic General Assembly.
Glendening was spared further public criticism last night, but some of the participants have decided they are in a position to use the governor's weakness against him in negotiations for state assistance on the theory that, politically, he needs them and the voters in their counties.
Never allies or members of a dining club, the five leaders were drawn together by the governor's low standing in the polls, his difficulties with other Democratic politicians and his controversial fund-raising tactics. All of those were major topics of discussion among the Maryland delegates to last week's Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Meanwhile, three business organizations are considering a lawsuit specifically challenging Glendening's granting limited collective-bargaining rights tor state employees but representing a more general opposition.
Still, the edge was off the language last night. In addition to the desire to avoid further airing of grievances, party leaders are urging unity for the presidential and congressional elections this fall.
Many Democrats have said that despite the severity of the concerns, Glendening will get at least another year to stabilize his situation before anyone would consider opposing him in the primary.
One of those counseling caution is House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat who was invited to but did not attend last night's session.
The governor himself was the only one talking yesterday about serious wheeling and dealing.
"If some people want to go off and have back-room deals, that's fine," he said during an appearance at Dundalk Marine Terminal. "I didn't get here because of back-room deals. I didn't get here because of smoke-filled rooms. I got here because we have a vision for the state of Maryland and that's exactly what we're implementing."
After plans for the meeting were made public late last week, Glendening and his allies attempted to persuade prospective guests to stay away. One of the efforts may have backfired.
On Sunday, the governor and Ruppersberger had a bracing conversation during the Ravens game. Ruppersberger was asked last night to comment on a report that Glendening had threatened him with loss of state aid.
"It was a lively debate," Ruppersberger said, declining to answer the question directly. "We had a debate about this meeting. But that's all part of our jobs as elected officials. We disagree about some things."
At the same time, Ruppersberger praised the governor's attention to local needs and said, "This meeting has been blown out of proportion. The citizens don't want to hear about this meeting."
The other businessman, H. Furlong Baldwin, chairman of Baltimore-based Mercantile Bankshares Corp., was the only other businessman in attendance. By some accounts, Baldwin was the main force behind the meeting initially, urging Bainum and others to join him.
Asked to comment before last night's dinner, Baldwin stopped before entering the Bainum house and said, "I believe you're trespassing." Bainum said earlier that reporters would be welcome.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said, "I think the intent of this meeting was what do we do to help the governor. In Montgomery County, he's been very responsive to our needs. He has devoted a lot of money to school construction. He gets tremendous credit for that."
Duncan came close to offering a political reason for last night's meeting, which Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann also attended.
"We're looking for ways to improve our posture for the 1998 election," he said. But he said the meeting was not "anti-Glendening."
Pub Date: 9/06/96