The Redefining of Ellen Sauerbrey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 6, 1998; Page A01
Not long after her razor-thin loss in the 1994 governor's race, not long after the months of court fights over the recount, not long after a brief respite to tend her garden and gather her thoughts, Ellen R. Sauerbrey began to focus on running again. She turned to friends for advice.
Parris N. Glendening had edged her out by fewer than 6,000 votes by labeling her an extremist and a right-wing radical, she told them. What could she do, without giving up her conservative values, to counter those same attacks when she faced Glendening in a rematch?
Next time, her friends said, get personal about herself. Let voters know about her childhood in a Baltimore row house, that her dad was a union steelworker, how she put herself through college and taught school.
Her political advisers had more advice: They said it was also time to reach out to new supporters, to broaden her appeal with moderates who might be uncomfortable with her opposition to gun control and abortion rights.
Now, the time for the rematch has almost arrived; both Sauerbrey and Glendening are expected to win their parties' nominations for governor in September.
And it is clear that Sauerbrey, who made her name in Maryland politics as a conservative, partisan Republican, is ready to show voters a new, more moderate side of herself.
The question is, how will voters respond? How Sauerbrey is defined, both by her campaign and Glendening's, will be central to whether she comes in second yet again or becomes Maryland's first Republican governor in 32 years.
Four years ago, she was the underdog who surprised the political establishment in the primary by defeating the GOP's front-runner, Rep. Helen Delich Bentley (Md.), by calling for a 24 percent tax cut and a reduction in government bureaucracy.
This time around, she says she still wants to cut taxes and government. But when asked about the hot button issues such as abortion and gun control, she declares they've been decided and she won't do anything to change current Maryland laws.
She has also begun talking more about her childhood, that her dad not only was a union man but a Democrat, and that when she and her husband were unable to have children, she threw herself into politics.
"I've realized that it's important for people to identify with you on a personal level and not just a policy level," said Sauerbrey, adding she didn't fully appreciate that four years ago.
"What really makes me uncomfortable is the perception that I'm somehow changing, because I don't think I am," Sauerbrey said in a recent interview.
"I think what I'm trying to do is present to the voters of Maryland someone that they never got to know. That's because after the primary in '94, I came out of nowhere for most people.
"And the only image most people have of me is the image that was painted for me by Parris Glendening's TV commercials . . . of a radical right-wing extremist, and I don't think I'm any of those things."
But polls and interviews with voters suggest that with this election she has an opportunity to present a different picture of herself.
A recent Washington Post poll showed that 55 percent of likely voters thought Sauerbrey has the right experience to be governor.
The poll showed 44 percent of likely voters thought she was too conservative, down slightly from the 48 percent who had that perception four years ago.
But as she draws the new lines of her self-portrait, Sauerbrey has four realities to confront: She has a conservative voting record from 16 years in the General Assembly that Glendening will work to exploit.
She made her name as a partisan Republican in the legislature, making it easier for her critics to paint her an extremist.
She is seen by some of her former supporters as a poor loser for hotly contesting the close 1994 election.
And, as she attempts to offer a softer, more moderate image, she opens herself to attacks from Democrats for being hypocritical and at the same time risks offending her conservative base.
The state Democratic Party has launched a "Sauerbrey Truth Patrol" to compare her voting record with her campaign.
"Every time candidate Sauerbrey attempts to sidestep the right-wing policies of Delegate Sauerbrey, we will be there to tell voters the truth," declared party Chairman Peter Krauser.
Herb Smith, who heads the Political Science Department at Western Maryland College, said Democratic attacks may have a hard time resonating this year.
"She's accentuating her personality more than her policy stances this time around," Smith said. "Ellen Sauerbrey projects a warm, personable human being. She's a nice person."
Sauerbrey, 60, is a former high school biology teacher who entered politics as a volunteer in the 1964 presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater.
A longtime resident of northern Baltimore County, she gained a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates in 1978, when Republicans were almost a fringe party whose leaders often cooperated with the ruling Democrats.
By contrast, Sauerbrey refused to go along with Democrats. In 16 years, as she rose to become House minority leader, she remodeled the GOP caucus in her image, turning it into a much more combative, conservative faction that attempted to draw sharp distinctions with the legislative leadership even while winning few battles.
That posture served her well in 1994, when she capitalized on deep support among party conservatives to upset Bentley and nearly rode a national GOP wave into the governor's mansion.
Since the last campaign, she has been essentially running full time for another shot at Glendening, keeping her name in the public eye through a stint as a talk radio host in Baltimore and as the Maryland chairwoman of the presidential campaign of Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm. '
Mostly though, she has kept a vigorous public speaking schedule among Republican grass-roots groups, while campaigning at black churches and attempting to reach out to Jewish groups and other traditional Democratic voting blocs.
One of the biggest signs of her move to the middle was her selection last month of a new running mate, former U.S. attorney Richard D. Bennett, who favors abortion rights and gun control.
While GOP conservative hard-liners such as Oliver L. North have helped to raise funds for Sauerbrey, her campaign prefers to emphasize appearances by moderates such as New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
There have been grumblings among some of her longtime supporters that Sauerbrey isn't paying enough attention to her base.
But Sauerbrey said that although she is not ignoring them, she is running a different campaign this time that includes a more experienced staff and a greater emphasis on fund-raising to enable her to buy television time.
"Some people are upset with it," said Guy Sabatino, president of the Republican Club of Maryland, an organization that includes some of the party's most conservative members.
"In 1994, she got 50 percent of the vote. Now she's trying something drastically different. We'll just have to see what it does for her."
Some supporters don't mind the changes. "I can understand why she picked a more moderate running mate she wants to win," said Susan Ferris, 38, a Severna Park homemaker and tutor who opposes abortion and voted for Sauerbrey four years ago. She said she expects she will vote for her again this time. "More people are pro-choice. That makes sense. [But] I'm not going to change my mind about voting for her."
The Post poll showed about nine in 10 of the people who voted for Sauerbrey last time say they will support her again this year.
But in what could be another very close election, many others said they need to be persuaded again.
"I'm going to have to really look closely at what she wants to do," said Eric Vanderlinden, 38, a systems engineer who lives in Annapolis and voted for Sauerbrey in 1994. "I'm going to have to be more convinced than I was four years ago."
This time around, Sauerbrey may have a more difficult time because she is taking on an incumbent at a time when the economy is up and crime is down. But she will have advantages she did not have four years ago, when she was greatly outspent by Glendening.
This year, Sauerbrey is on her way toward raising enough money to be competitive with the governor.
And already, her efforts at burnishing her personal story appears to be registering with some voters.
"She has a very easy way about her. She's genuine," said Katherine Dodson, 49, a proofreader who lives in Westminster and has met Sauerbrey.
She voted for her four years ago, and said she would again this year.
Her fight after the election four years ago remains for some voters their biggest turnoff to Sauerbrey. Sauerbrey fought the results for months, claiming dead people had voted and other instances of voter fraud.
While finding some isolated instances of irregularities, a judge upheld the results.
"I was really displeased with her post-election performance. That totally soured me on Sauerbrey," said John Meyer, 32, a commercial real estate broker who lives in Baltimore County.
He said that although Maryland's economy is not performing as well as it should be a central platform of Sauerbrey's campaign this year he hopes there's someone else with the same message because he refuses to vote for her.
But the amount of displeasure is less than many analysts expected this year, according to The Post poll.
About 55 percent of this year's likely voters say Sauerbrey conducted herself well in 1994.
Fred Keller, 39, a federal worker who lives in Ellicott City said Sauerbrey pushed too hard in contesting the election. "But," he said, "it didn't turn me off in supporting her. I agree with her tax-cutting policies."
Sauerbrey said she had to go to court to challenge the election because state law, which since has been changed, didn't allow a recount.
Still, she acknowledged that some people were unhappy with her. "I . . . recognize that there are still people who are troubled by it and to the degree that it troubles people, it troubles me," she said. "You do things because you think they're the right thing at the time, and there were things that if I were doing it today I'd do differently."
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