Checkbook politics


IN POLITICS, money can't buy happiness. Al Checchi found that out two weeks ago in California. Ray Schoenke, and perhaps Jim Brady, are likely to find this applies in Maryland, too.

Mr. Checchi spent a staggering $40 million of his own money on his gubernatorial race, saturating California airwaves. Yet when the primary votes were counted, he was humiliated: Gray Davis, a career state politician with as much charisma as a wet rag, won in a landslide. It was his prior experience that made the difference, according to exit polls.

Big spenders

Fast-forward to Maryland. Mr. Schoenke, whose only claim to fame is that he played pro football, wants to be governor. He's got no experience in elected office and has never served on a policy-making board in Maryland. Yet he says he has a net worth of $20 million and is willing to spend part of that to buy -- oops -- win the governor's mansion.

He has resumed his heavy spending on media ads in the belief that name recognition can make him viable. His stands on issues? They're being customized by image consultants.

How about education? He's all for it. Give lots of new dollars for feel-good objectives.

How to pay for it all? Bring slot machines to race tracks, and devote the state's take to schools.

How much will his education plan cost? Don't ask foolish questions in an election campaign. Promise now, pay the bills later.

How about health care costs? He's against them. And he's against everyone's favorite punching bag, managed-care insurance companies.

His promise? He'll give everyone freedom of choice when it comes to choosing a doctor or getting treatment. It sounds great. But in the process, he probably will drive up insurance premiums for consumers.

He says he can deliver an honest, cost-efficient government because he's run his own insurance business. Of course, managing a $16 billion enterprise with close to 100,000 employees might be a tad more difficult -- especially when you have 188 legislators micro-managing your moves. But what the heck. Anybody with common-sense and millions to spend can run the state of Maryland.

Mr. Schoenke is in for a rude awakening. Voters are fed up with the corrupting influence of money in politics -- including candidates who try to buy an office.

Relative calm

With the economy humming along nicely, with most people satisfied with their lives, there is no hue and cry for revolution.

And there especially is no groundswell of support for an outsider devoid of government experience.

If someone knocked on your door and said he could fix your faulty plumbing system -- though he admitted having no professional plumbing experience -- would you let him in? Not if you cared about your house -- or wallet.

Similarly, voters aren't in a mood to entrust their government to amateurs. They have never done so before, and there's no indication things have changed.

In any profession, it takes years of training and experience before you are ready for the top job. Where are Mr. Schoenke's years of training in government? What does he know about managing such an enormously complex public-service operation?

Mr. Brady, the former economic development secretary, does have some expertise -- four years of running a government agency. His problem is that he's never been an elected official and has never felt the full force of competing constituencies.

Yes, Mr. Brady can raise vast sums for a run for governor as an independent. But his opponents are sure to ask: Where is his experience in elected office? Indeed, where is his experience in running a multibillion-dollar enterprise?

In contrast, Gov. Parris Glendening has 30 years of service in local, county and state offices, Ellen Sauerbrey has 16 years in the House of Delegates, Eileen Rehrmann has 24 years on a town council, state legislature and as Harford County executive and Chuck Ecker has eight years as Howard County executive.

In the eyes of voters, experience counts. Exit polls showed conclusively it was his state-government background that won Gray Davis his party's nomination for governor of California.

California is often a trendsetter. In the fall elections, Maryland is likely to follow in the footsteps of California voters when it comes to choosing between candidates who boast of their government experience vs. those who try to capture public office with their checkbooks.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor for The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/14/98

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