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Dirty tricks


YOU COULD think of it as sex, lies and radio ads.

Unhappy with Comptroller William Donald Schaefer for personal and political reasons, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has launched $15,000 worth of radio attack ads against him. In so doing, Mr. Glendening takes an unseemly feud to a new low. He's manipulating both the facts and the campaign finance laws of Maryland. It's a transparent ploy we hope will backfire.

Mr. Glendening's money will pay for ads in support of Mr. Schaefer's opponent in this year's primary, Secretary of State John T. Willis. Another $10,000 from Mr. Glendening goes for a get-out-the-vote effort.

Here's what's wrong with the picture. The money was given to Parris Glendening for a Parris Glendening campaign -- not to promote Mr. Willis. The campaign finance system presumes that money given to one candidate will not be transferred to the benefit of another. Suppose a contributor to Mr. Glendening supports Mr. Schaefer, too? As of today, that contributor is helping to defeat someone he wants elected.

It's legal, election officials say. It's also a gross violation of the spirit of the law. It's a loophole the Assembly must close.

Right now, a campaign committee may make unlimited "independent expenditures." One candidate can "wash" money through his campaign accounts for use by another candidate. But it does more damage even than misdirecting a contribution. It overrides the contribution limits: $4,000 to any individual candidate. In this case, Mr. Glendening's campaign committee has exceeded the limit six times over. Again, it's legal -- and outrageous.

But maybe a loophole is the least of it.

Mr. Glendening argues that Mr. Schaefer should be turned out of office because he has been insensitive to women and minorities. His proof: Mr. Schaefer sometimes refers to women as "little girl," a practice his friends say disguises his difficulty with remembering names. It's endearing, not demeaning, they say. At one public meeting, he referred to blacks as Afro-Americans instead of African-Americans. This is pale evidence for a charge that suggests racism and sexism. Mr. Glendening's ads rely on the cynical belief that many people are prone to accept a slur. It's the basis, no doubt, of all negative campaigning.

As a public official whose career began before the movements for civil rights and gender equality, Mr. Schaefer earned enduring support from women and African-Americans who saw in him real sensitivity to their concerns. He voted for open housing laws on the Baltimore City Council at a time when there was plenty of pressure not to. He employed women in the highest echelons of his administrations, local and state.

And what of his accuser? Mr. Glendening has been an aggressive proponent of both civil and gay rights. He appointed many African-Americans and women to important positions in state government and to the bench. Several women served in his Cabinet -- as they did in Mr. Schaefer's.

But Mr. Glendening also scandalized some by divorcing his wife and marrying a young staff member. How sensitive was that? Mr. Schaefer, no doubt, incurred Mr. Glendening's enduring enmity when he made remarks that triggered newspaper stories examining Mr. Glendening's personal life. Little is gained from returning to that subject now, but Mr. Glendening opened the door.

Poor John Willis. A man of accomplishment and long service to the Democratic Party in Maryland, he's being used here by Mr. Glendening. He claims he knew nothing of the governor's advertising gambit -- as he must to maintain the law's demand for "independence." Few will buy it.

Public officials must be sensitive to all. They must be honest. They must display common decency. Mr. Glendening's sordid last hurrah fails in all these respects.

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