Grass-roots Democratic Party leaders fear that political miscues by Gov. Parris N. Glendening have significantly hurt his chances for re-election, but most still believe he is capable of mounting a comeback.
In an informal survey of chairmen of the Democratic Central Committees in Baltimore and all 23 Maryland counties, a majority acknowledged that Glendening appears to be less popular with voters today than when he defeated Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey by fewer than 6,000 votes nearly two years ago.
But only a handful said they want another Democrat to challenge him in 1998. And none suggested that the governor's problems were so devastating that he couldn't mend his standing with voters much as President Clinton seems to have done.
"We're getting scared, and I don't think that's necessary," said Joseph T. Ferraracci, chairman of Baltimore County's committee. "We know he has his pitfalls. We have to give the man a chance," he said.
"I can't say I'm not concerned," said Richard L. Hemphill, Washington County's chairman. "He couldn't get 35 percent of the vote in my county today. But I still think it's going to be difficult to defeat him in 1998."
Party committee chairmen are roughly the equivalent of sergeants in the army of volunteers that mount local, state and national campaigns. Elected by voters in each subdivision, they can usually be found distributing pamphlets, holding fund-raisers, registering voters and speaking on behalf of Democratic politicians.
So it is somewhat rare for them to publicly criticize a governor from their party. But some of those surveyed offered a harsh assessment of Glendening's first 20 months in office.
"On a scale of one to 10, I'd give him about a seven, and don't ask me why I'm giving him so generous a mark. I'm being nice, I guess," said Beverly G. Travers, chairwoman in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore. "The time for keeping a governor for two terms may be leaving."
Donald H. Fratz, chairman in Western Maryland's Garrett County, called Glendening "sort of disappointing" and criticized
the governor for spending so little time in the state's most-western county.
"His popularity has probably diminished," said Fratz. "We don't know what to make of him."
A chairman who asked not to be identified by name expressed hope that an alternative Democratic candidate such as House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. or Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III would step forward to challenge Glendening.
"I don't hear a good word about him," the chairman said. "I just hope Dutch Ruppersberger runs. There are other people who feel the same way."
Local concern over the governor's electability comes at the end of what has been a difficult summer politically for the state's chief executive.
There have been reports of a rift with Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke over school funding and what Schmoke perceives as a broken promise to consider slot machine gambling.
Add to that some controversies over campaign fund raising -- illegal donations given by racetrack owner Joseph A. De Francis and a New York trip arranged by a corporation pursuing a lucrative state contract.
Yet the problems on the minds of local chairmen often date to events much earlier in the administration. They were the state financing of a $200 million Baltimore Ravens stadium at Camden Yards and the controversial pensions Glendening and some of his top lieutenants were scheduled to receive last year after he left his post as Prince George's County executive.
Comments sometimes reflected concerns over county-level appointments or state spending on local projects like schools or roads.
"He's focused on Baltimore," said Patricia Pease, chairwoman in Calvert County in Southern Maryland. "We don't see anything supportive coming from the governor's office."
Criticisms were generally strongest in the rural counties where Glendening fared poorly in the last election. The Democrat defeated Sauerbrey only in Prince George's and Montgomery counties and in Baltimore, losing the other subdivisions by margins as large as 2-to-1.
"He's always putting his foot in his mouth," said Elizabeth P. Ford, vice chairwoman in Queen Anne's County, responding to the survey on behalf of the chairman -- Irving Pinder -- who holds a job in the Glendening administration. "We can't see any advantages to us at all in the stadium deal."
John T. Willis, Maryland's secretary of state and a top political adviser to Glendening, said the comments of local chairmen should not be interpreted as a sign of grass-roots dissension. Rather, he said, they are the natural reaction of the politically active to recent headlines.
"Yes, they are going to express concern. Nobody who reads the paper is not going to express concern," Willis said. "I can assure you that the governor is not in trouble with the party."
Willis said the governor is far more popular with local party officials than his predecessor, William Donald Schaefer. He said Glendening is about "1,000 times better off" than Schaefer was after 1992 when he endorsed George Bush for president.
"You are trying to drive wedges where they don't exist," Willis said. "He has as good a relationship with the party as I've seen in the modern era of politics."
The informal survey was conducted in the past week in the wake of a Sept. 5 meeting among two top Maryland businessmen and several Democratic county executives who are viewed as potential challengers to the governor in 1998.
Participants described the affair as a discussion of state issues, but the meeting's host, former state Sen. Stewart Bainum Jr., had earlier suggested the group would focus on Glendening's political vulnerability.
Nearly all the state party chairmen condemned the closed-door session. "A lot of people in smoke-filled rooms," said one. Another said the meeting amounted to little more than a "public airing of dirty linen."
"It was a disservice to the party," said Cecil Short, Charles County's chairman. "It showed divisiveness when we should be concentrating on the re-election of the president of the United States."
Of the 24 chairmen, eight expressed unqualified support for the governor. Some said Glendening was more popular in their jurisdictions today, and they could offer not a single criticism of his performance in office.
"I think when you look at his record, he's done well," said Donald H. Spence Jr., chairman in Montgomery County.
Some also blamed media coverage of the governor that put more emphasis on political imbroglio and less on issues.
"We read these headlines and they concern us," said Ann Hughes, Harford County's chairwoman. "I don't like the way he's being treated by the press."
Pub Date: 9/13/96