His popularity is tanking and he's looking for a new job outside politics, but Gov. Parris N. Glendening signaled this week that he'll be a factor in Maryland elections this year - whether anybody wants him or not.
Glendening stunned fellow Democrats by elbowing his way into the suddenly electrified race for comptroller. With unspent campaign funds, he bought radio ads that paint incumbent Comptroller William Donald Schaefer as a sexist and racist and support longtime Glendening ally John T. Willis in the Democratic primary.
But the advertisements could backfire, political experts say, as they reinforce animosity toward Glendening that is cresting as he prepares to leave office after two terms.
"He's become immensely unpopular," said Paul S. Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, College Park.
"A lot of politicians are not going to want to be seen alongside him during the campaign. The negative ads he is running against Schaefer are not only horrendous, they are ill-advised. They do nothing to help Willis and nothing to hurt Schaefer."
The governor casts a shadow beyond the comptroller's race, observers say, and could affect the prospects of his hand-picked successor, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
Glendening's heightened visibility comes at an inopportune moment for Townsend, trying to distance herself from a tumultuous administration and portray herself as a clear choice over Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Townsend almost always avoids mentioning the name of her mentor and political partner during campaign appearances, even as she claims credit for trends in job growth, health care and education spending.
Her balancing act now becomes more difficult.
"If you were Kathleen Townsend, you would pray that Glendening is a non-factor," said Keith Haller, a Bethesda-based pollster. "It muddies the waters."
"On one hand, you want to tout Townsend's experience and all these accomplishments over the last eight years," Haller said. "On the other hand, there is the growing cloud hanging over the Glendening administration. It takes away a lot of her thunder."
Townsend said yesterday that she asked Glendening to stop the attacks on Schaefer during a private conversation this week. She would not disclose what he said, but the answer was reflected in the new comptroller's race commercial that Glendening unveiled yesterday.
She said she does not believe her association with Glendening is harming her political prospects but concedes that she must convince voters to focus on her and not the outgoing governor.
"The challenge, of course, as a lieutenant governor is to make sure people know what are my values, what do I want to accomplish, what am I going to do," Townsend said. "And that's the classic issue when you are lieutenant governor."
Townsend mentioned Glendening by name yesterday for the first time in weeks when she received an endorsement from several environmental groups. She said later that she will campaign with the governor, though no time or place has been set.
Glendening is leaving office as a study in contrasts. He's become a national leader on land-development policies, and the state university system flourished on his watch.
But in the past year, he divorced his wife of 25 years, married a deputy chief of staff 24 years his junior and had a baby. He tried to persuade his appointees to the university system's Board of Regents to name him chancellor, a $375,000-a-year job, but had to renounce his candidacy amid criticism that it was unethical.
He drew a legislative redistricting map to help friends and punish enemies that was tossed out as unconstitutional by the Court of Appeals. And he is leaving the state with an estimated budget shortfall of about $1 billion for the 2004 fiscal year.
A July poll for The Sun showed 42 percent of Maryland voters approve of his job in office, while 45 percent disapprove. The poll showed Townsend's unfavorable ratings rising in step with Glendening's.
"He is drastically hurting her on the Eastern Shore, and he is giving Schaefer a whole new burst of popularity here because he is so disliked," said state Sen. Richard F. Colburn, a Dorchester County Republican and frequent Glendening critic.
"His lack of respect for other elected officials has brought the office of Maryland governor to an all-time low," Colburn said. "This is by far the most vindictive governor that Maryland has ever had. What I'm saying is what many legislators would like to say."
Said Michael D. Golden, a Schaefer spokesman: "If the election is between Glendening and Schaefer, Schaefer wins. Schaefer is admired and loved. Glendening is despised. ... "
The money Glendening is spending on the comptroller's race, Golden said, could have helped Townsend instead. "All he's interested in is himself," he said. "That's been the hallmark of his administration."
Chuck Porcari, a spokesman for Glendening, said the governor remains largely well-liked in Maryland "except for certain individuals who disagree with particular policies."
Glendening's popularity is higher than that of Schaefer during the final year of Schaefer's second term as governor, Porcari notes. Schaefer's approval rating was 39 percent in 1994, rebounding from 16 percent in March 1993, according to polls at the time.
Critics of Glendening's involvement in the comptroller's race, he said, are ignoring rights associated with democracy.
"Fortunately we're in America, where opinions and ideas are debated," Porcari said. "Nowhere in the word 'primary' do I see the word 'entitlement.' "
Willis said yesterday that he was "not worried" about a Glendening backlash and believes the ideas that he and the governor support on environmental protection and other issues transcend the personalities involved.
"It's the substance that matters," Willis said. "I have a broad-based coalition. I'm pleased to have the governor's support. I'm pleased to have the support of the League of Conservation Votes. It all helps build a picture for the voters."
But others believe the governor should distance himself from all contests this year.
"I think what's important here is that Governor Glendening not be an issue in either the comptroller's race or the governor's race," said John N. Bambacus, a former state senator who teaches political science at Frostburg State University.
"The governor is getting involved in internecine warfare at the wrong time," he said. "It's bad for the Democratic Party, and it's bad for Parris Glendening's legacy."