Glendening Proves Power of Incumbency
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 12, 1998; Page B01
On the surface, Gov. Parris N. Glendening looked ripe for the picking in Maryland's Democratic primary. After a reed-thin victory in 1994, he started off with ethical blunders and sagged in the polls, once ranking as the nation's least popular governor.
But for all the talk about his gloomy fortunes, Glendening now has a virtually free path to renomination after the decision Monday by Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann to halt her campaign. Rehrmann was only the latest of several prominent Democrats, including Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and millionaire business executive Ray Schoenke, to look hard at challenging the governor, only to conclude that it would be too difficult to defeat him in the Sept. 15 primary.
These would-be challengers and their supporters learned two things the hard way: Glendening is an aggressive -- some say lucky -- campaigner who has maintained strong support among organized labor, teachers, African Americans and other constituencies that wield special influence in the Democratic primary. And the power of incumbency, especially the fund-raising power, makes it extremely difficult to oust governors in party primaries.
In fact, it has never happened in Maryland. And it has happened only 14 times in the last 348 gubernatorial elections nationwide, said John T. Willis, Maryland's secretary of state and a political historian.
"The most difficult thing to do in American politics is to defeat an incumbent executive in a primary," said Willis, a longtime Glendening political adviser. "Governor Glendening is constantly underestimated. He's been underestimated his entire career. He's very dogged, very methodical. . . . You go to any county, you're going to find friends of Parris."
Rehrmann is the latest Democrat to learn how difficult it is to raise campaign money against an incumbent who controls budgetary purse strings and state contracting -- and whom few business executives want to alienate if at all possible.
Early on, Rehrmann appeared to have the ability to raise big money. First, she gained a reputation during two terms running Harford County as someone who encouraged economic development, threatening Glendening's shaky position within state business circles.
More important, perhaps, Rehrmann was the only candidate in the race backing the legalization of slot machines at Maryland racetracks. As a result, she was able to tap into pools of money unavailable to Glendening, who opposes gambling. Her campaign set an ambitious fund-raising goal of $2 million.
But Rehrmann raised only half that amount and then spent most of it without buying a single TV ad, said campaign spokesman George Harrison. The campaign recently determined that it needed at least $750,000 more, he said. But after would-be donors saw polls showing that Rehrmann badly trailed Glendening, they wanted proof that their money was not going to a lost cause.
"A lot of it was, 'Show us you can win,' " Harrison said. "Well, we can only show them we can win with money. We could only have shown them if we could have gone on television. Television is where it is."
Underscoring an incumbent's fund-raising clout, just hours after Rehrmann's withdrawal, Glendening cleared $50,000 at a $1,000-a-person event at the Inner Harbor condominium of Calman Zamoiski, a Baltimore businessman once active in trying to recruit a candidate to run against Glendening. That was roughly the total amount Rehrmann had in her campaign kitty at the end.
"I think she was sold a bill of goods," said Gerard E. Evans, an Annapolis lobbyist who supports the governor. "She's a hard-working, honest politician. But she got in a room with a bunch of heavies, and they said, 'We're going to deliver this for you in terms of money.' And it didn't happen."
Rehrmann's abrupt withdrawal raises new questions about her most high-profile Democratic supporters, Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Political activists are privately debating whether Curry, Schmoke and other Rehrmann supporters miscalculated by overestimating Glendening's weaknesses, or whether they knowingly embarked on a hopeless crusade in order to register their unhappiness with the governor and possibly try to gain concessions from him.
"Some of their supporters may say they have the best of all worlds," said Bethesda-based pollster Keith Haller said. "They are critically necessary for Glendening to win the general election. Glendening will have to come to them, hat in hand, to secure their endorsements."
Some analysts, however, scoff at that notion. Because the governor secured the support of nearly all other elected officials in Prince George's and Baltimore, they say, he has proven that Curry and Schmoke have limited influence and can be sidestepped.
Cardin and Schoenke said yesterday they concluded they would have had to mount a relentlessly negative campaign to have any hope of ousting Glendening in the primary.
"In order to be successful in a primary," Cardin said, "you have to show why the person shouldn't be retained, which means going negative." Such campaigns tar both candidates, he said, so whoever prevails will be weakened in the general election. "It's a Catch-22," he said.
"I would have to go negative big time," Schoenke said. "It would have cost a fortune. . . . My [poll] numbers indicated the vast majority of Marylanders wanted the governor."
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