W. Russell Johnson is a small-business man and a Republican. He hates taxes, thinks welfare is destroying America's cities and wants schools to go back to the basics.
He also is African-American. And four years ago, like a huge majority of black voters, Johnson voted for Parris N. Glendening -- helping to elect yet another Democrat rather than taking a chance on a conservative Republican he knew little about.
But with another election near, Johnson is taking a fresh look at Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the leading GOP candidate.
Yesterday, Sauerbrey met with black business leaders in Columbia as part of her effort to turn what has been a disastrous electoral liability for Republicans into an asset. And Johnson liked what he saw.
"I think she's a little bit different," Johnson, 63, said later. "I think that she's open enough that she's willing to say, 'I want to be representative of all the people.' "
A significant African-American vote for Sauerbrey remains unlikely, say political observers. "It will be the most difficult constituency for her to make inroads within the general election," said Bethesda pollster Keith Haller.
Blacks -- almost one-quarter of the electorate in Maryland -- are the Democrats' most reliable supporters. Polls suggest they voted nearly 9-to-1 for Glendening in 1994 -- providing the margin for a victory of fewer than 6,000 votes.
But in meetings around the state, Sauerbrey is taking tiny steps toward softening Republicans' image as a white party.
The message at the Columbia Hilton yesterday morning was her usual mix of cutting taxes, trimming regulations and beefing up academic standards. The group -- including Democrats, Republicans and independents hand-picked by black Sauerbrey supporters -- liked her pro-business message and seemed charmed by her eagerness to win their support.
"She didn't win it, but she didn't do anything to lose it," said Walt Morgan, a 58-year-old Columbia management consultant who called himself a "disaffected Democrat."
"I was favorably impressed with her," he said.
That despite Sauerbrey's refusal yesterday to hedge on affirmative action, which has come under attack from conservatives across the country but still enjoys support among many black Republicans.
"Discrimination still exists," she told the group yesterday, but she refused to endorse expanding requirements for minority participation in state contracts.
"I think what we need to focus on is getting businesses started, not letting them get dependent on minority contracts. I think that dependency needs to be broken," she said.
Sauerbrey has worked hard at expanding beyond the GOP's core of white, largely Christian voters in rural and suburban areas.
She has ventured into synagogues and visited Israel. She has prayed at black churches in Baltimore. And she has talked shop twice with black business leaders in Prince George's County -- before coming to do the same in Columbia yesterday.
The effort is part of a larger campaign to soften Sauerbrey's image -- painted largely by Glendening -- as a right-winger out of touch with ordinary, working-class voters. She talks often now of her modest roots in a Baltimore rowhouse, her steel-worker dad and her days as a Baltimore County teacher.
Her legal challenge of Glendening's victory in 1994 also has left a lasting bad impression with many.
Larry Gibson, a seasoned Baltimore operative and campaign manager for Democrat Eileen M. Rehrmann, says Sauerbrey's accusations of voter fraud in Baltimore "defamed" the city -- hurting her future chances with voters black and white.
"I think people have a longer memory than she thinks they have," he said.
But African-Americans are such an important voter block that winning even a slightly larger percentage -- or holding down the turnout for her Democratic opponent -- is smart strategy, say political observers.
Ronald Walters, a professor of politics and African-American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, says black voters are wary of conservatives, particularly their calls for longer jail sentences, cutting welfare and rolling back affirmative action.
He called the 1994 election "the most racially polarized vote for governor in [Maryland's] modern political history," but says Sauerbrey might benefit from Glendening's public split with such influential African-Americans as Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Gibson.
Sauerbrey also is considering Michael Steele, GOP chairman in Prince George's County and an African-American, as a possible running mate.
But among the group in Columbia yesterday, Sauerbrey scored points all by herself.
"She definitely hit a couple of buttons with me," said Harry Evans III, a 42-year-old state employee who also is host of a cable-television talk show called "That Show with Those Black Guys."
"If she asks for me to support her, she has a hell of a good chance," he said. "No one else has asked."
Pub Date: 6/09/98