EVEN Ellen Sauerbrey was trying to be kind to Gov. Parris Glendening, her likely foe in the November general election, as he bungled the appointment of a new state comptroller.
He "looks politically inept," she said. "He lacks basic political leadership."
That's putting it mildly.
It was a calamitous week for Mr. Glendening. He gave his enemies so much potent ammunition that his chief foes, the Republican Ms. Sauerbrey and Democrat Eileen M. Rehrmann, could afford to tread softly while Maryland residents mourn the loss of popular Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein.
The governor's klutzy performance has set back his re-election game plan. For months, Mr. Glendening had been making headway in overcoming public unease about his insincerity and his overtly political nature.
Now his mishandling of the comptroller crisis could send his poll numbers tumbling just as Ms. Rehrmann and her key allies start to take direct aim at the governor in the Democratic primary.
Their job just got a whole lot easier.
First the governor failed to build a broad consensus on a successor to Mr. Goldstein.
Instead of calling a summit on Sunday to unify leading Democrats behind a comptroller candidate willing to take the job, the governor turned to staff members. They totally misread the situation.
Then he insulted former Gov. William Donald Schaefer by refusing even to consider him as a finalist. That snub pushed an irate Mr. Schaefer into the race.
Next, he selected his own campaign chairman, Michael Darr Barnes, a former congressman who hadn't been an active politician for a dozen years. The governor knew, though, that Mr. Barnes would be a loyal comptroller -- unlike the unpredictable Mr. Schaefer.
His choice of Mr. Barnes boomeranged. The response from Democrats was decidedly lukewarm.
Once Mr. Schaefer made it clear Monday afternoon that he would file for comptroller, the Glendening team failed to reassess the situation. They plunged ahead with the Barnes appointment, thinking that the ex-governor was bluffing, that he could be talked out of running.
Mr. Barnes seemed to sense the impending disaster even as he walked into the state elections board to file Monday night. Few recognized him. He appeared nervous and unsure. One observer said, the new comptroller looked like "a deer caught in headlights."
Compare that to the electricity generated by Mr. Schaefer's jaunt to the elections board an hour earlier. He was mobbed by camera crews and reporters. Onlookers rushed to shake his hand. Lobbyists started leading applause. The star of the show had arrived.
As a tidal wave of Schaefer support built, Mr. Barnes sensed he'd been misled by the Glendening staff. This would not be a smooth ride to election as comptroller.
He had been outfoxed by the ex-governor.
So had the current governor. Mr. Glendening learned last week he can't win a popularity contest against William Donald Schaefer. Or take him for granted.
The governor didn't want the impetuous, "do it now" politician in a position of power where Mr. Schaefer could hinder administration initiatives.
That's why the Schaefer name never made the governor's list.
Yet now Parris Glendening's worst nightmare has come true.
Not only is Mr. Schaefer going to win a landslide victory for comptroller, but also he is in position to re-shape Annapolis' power alignment.
Farewell to Barnes
By week's end, Mr. Glendening tried to regain control. He pushed Mr. Barnes out with surprising alacrity and promptly offered the interim comptroller's job to Mr. Schaefer.
But Candidate Schaefer didn't fall into the trap. He rejected the offer. His message was loud and clear: He will be elected comptroller by voters, not appointed by the governor, and will maintain the independence of that office.
Louie Goldstein, were he around, would be applauding.
Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor for The Sun.
Pub Date: 7/12/98