The two Republican candidates for governor engaged in their first debate last night, agreeing that ethics in government will be the dominant issue in the general election and faulting Democrats for public policy failures across the board.
Ellen R. Sauerbrey and Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, seeking their party's nomination in the Sept. 15 primary, faced off at the Bethesda Naval Club in strategically critical Montgomery County.
Offering almost no criticism of each other, the two contenders saved their harsh words for the Democratic incumbent, Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
"We have a governor who is an underachiever, and our state is underperforming," said Sauerbrey, the party's 1994 nominee. "He doesn't stand for anything but getting re-elected."
Said Ecker: "Honesty and integrity are needed in the State House and in the legislature. We need to change the culture in Annapolis."
They apparently were referring to the ethical misdeeds of two Democratic legislators who were forced to leave the General Assembly this year.
The debate, before a crowd of more than 200, was cordial, with few clear differences emerging on such standard Republican themes as cutting taxes, trimming government and fighting crime.
One question asked whether Sauerbrey, 60, and Ecker, 69, would consider running on the same ticket. Ecker has been rumored as a possible running mate for Sauerbrey. Both dodged the question last night.
Stands on gambling
Ecker did, for the first time, say he is against allowing slot machines or casinos in Maryland, following the lead of Glendening and exposing Sauerbrey's uncertainty on what has emerged as a key issue.
"I would hate to rely on gambling money to help education," Ecker said.
Aides later said he was ruling out slot machines or casinos in Maryland under any circumstances.
Sauerbrey also criticized gambling, detailing her long-standing opposition to the lottery and keno, but she stopped short of ruling out slot machines at the state's horse racing tracks. After the debate, she said she had not finished formulating her policy on the matter.
It was a rare uncertain moment for Sauerbrey, who showed considerable polish during the hourlong debate sponsored by the Montgomery County Republican Club. She opened by talking about her childhood in a Baltimore rowhouse and proceeded to offer clear, focused answers to policy questions.
She promised to hire "a bureaucracy buster" to help trim government and eliminate "job-killing regulations." On welfare reform, she suggested that people receiving aid who can't immediately get jobs should go to work cleaning up their communities.
Ecker promised moderate, ethical and predictable government -- all trademarks of his administration in Howard. "We ought to forget party politics and do what is best. That's what I've done all my career."
His answers to questions were sometimes less crisp than Sauerbrey's, but he seemed to win over the crowd with folksy quips. When asked about President Clinton's scandals, Ecker promptly replied, "I have no interns."
A clear difference emerged on the issue of school choice.
Both favor making schools more competitive with each other. But Ecker criticized plans such as school vouchers that use public money to help children attend private schools. He said that would benefit mainly wealthy parents and drain public schools of funds.
"The problem with school choice is we'll end up with school 'haves' and 'have nots,' " said Ecker, who favors "charter schools" that are a more autonomous type of public school.
Sauerbrey replied, "Right now, it is only the wealthy people who can make choices. It's the wealthy people who send their children to private schools."
On most other issues, the two sounded similar. Both said they favor banning some late-term abortions but otherwise would let current abortion rights stand.
Both also supported the Intercounty Connector, an east-west highway that is a source of controversy in Montgomery County but generally popular with business leaders. Glendening recently announced that plans for the road would be put on hold.
In 1994, Sauerbrey's promise of deep tax cuts brought her virtually 50 percent of the 1.4 million votes cast.
She lost to Glendening by 5,993 votes -- winning in every jurisdiction except Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore.
Sauerbrey's near-miss has earned her the right to represent the party again, argue many GOP leaders. But Ecker slipped a pointed comment into his closing remarks.
"In 1998," he said, "close will not be good enough."
Both candidates left open the possibility of future debates, though none has been scheduled.
An edited half-hour version of the Ecker-Sauerbrey debate will be aired at 7 p.m. today on Maryland Public Television -- in the Baltimore area Channels 22 and 67
Pub Date: 5/21/98