Sauerbrey Plays Down '94 Issues
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 6, 1998; Page B01
Losing Maryland's 1994 governor's race by fewer than 6,000 votes to Parris N. Glendening was the second-best thing that could have happened to Ellen R. Sauerbrey.
Although the Baltimore County Republican naturally would prefer to have been living in the governor's mansion these last four years, coming so close to Glendening in a state long dominated by Democrats gave her the next best thing: Her stature within the GOP has skyrocketed, and she is the clear front-runner for the nomination to challenge the governor in November.
But Sauerbrey is running a dramatically different primary campaign from the one four years ago, when she upset the GOP front-runner, then-U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, by emphasizing her conservative record and roots.
This year, a new, softer Sauerbrey already is looking past her Sept. 15 primary contest against Charles I. Ecker as she tries to win the hearts of Maryland's more moderate electorate. And a crucial feature of her strategy has been to try to make voters forget her past efforts to restrict abortion rights, weaken the power of organized labor and oppose gun control initiatives -- the very stances that helped catapult her to prominence in the Republican Party.
Indeed, whenever she is asked about such potentially passionate causes, Sauerbrey says that the issues are settled in Maryland. She says it is not worth expending political capital on subjects that would have little chance of passage, especially at the expense of what she says is her larger agenda of lowering taxes and reforming bureaucratic regulations to make Maryland more attractive to business.
"Abortion and gun control are not the issues that are going to change the future of Maryland. They are issues that people care deeply about and I understand," Sauerbrey said. But she added: "I believe in spending my energies trying to do things that I think are going to advance the well-being of Maryland families in a practical sense."
Whether Sauerbrey can convince average Marylanders of the sincerity of her new moderation -- given her sometimes sharp rhetoric in the past -- is the crucial test of whether she will be able to defeat Glendening on Nov. 3.
Democrats, meanwhile, already are moving to exploit Sauerbrey's 16-year voting record in the General Assembly against abortion rights, gun bans and labor unions. "Ellen Sauerbrey the candidate wants to distance herself from the 16 years of extremist votes cast by Delegate Ellen Sauerbrey," said state Democratic chairman Peter B. Krauser.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Republicans' most conservative voters have largely muted their concerns about Sauerbrey's refusal to emphasize the causes they hold dear, largely because they believe she has the best chance at winning the governorship for the GOP in a generation. But privately, some wistfully wish they heard more about Sauerbrey's opposition to abortion and gun control.
"It is funny," said Guy Sabatino, president of the Republican Club of Maryland, which is not affiliated with the official state party. "She's playing the role of Helen Bentley in the sense that she's the top dog. . . . If Chuck Ecker was a conservative running in the primary, she would lose."
Sauerbrey's new strategy this year appears both pragmatic and born of some frustration with Glendening's repeated attacks on her record in their tight and sometimes bitter contest four years ago.
"The picture that was painted of me in 1994 was of a radical right-wing extremist, and I don't think I'm any of those things," Sauerbrey said. "I think I've always been a person who has very strong convictions but has always been willing to listen to other people's points of view, has always been willing to be realistic in terms of what you can accomplish and make compromises to move an agenda that I believe in forward."
Yet there is little doubt that Sauerbrey made her name in part by staking out strong conservative positions on the issues she does not want to discuss now. Sauerbrey served 16 years in the House of Delegates, representing a northern Baltimore County district and refusing to accommodate the ruling Democratic majority, as some other Republicans did. As minority leader from 1986 to 1994, Sauerbrey tried to turn the legislative process in Annapolis into partisan warfare -- in the hope of prompting voters to elect more Republicans.
On labor issues, abortion and gun control, "her track record has been to oppose that kind of stuff consistently," said Ray McInerney, political coordinator for the Maryland branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which has endorsed Glendening. Now, he said, "It seems to be part of a pattern by her campaign to lull her opponents asleep."
During her four terms in the House of Delegates, Sauerbrey voted against providing collective bargaining rights for state employees and voted for legislation that would have lowered the minimum wage for some young workers. She consistently received high marks from pro-business groups.
She believes that union membership should be voluntary and, at the time, sharply criticized Glendening's 1996 decision to extend collective bargaining rights to state employees by executive order after a similar measure died in the legislature.
But in a state where organized labor is influential, Sauerbrey consistently has reminded voters this year that her father was a union steelworker. And in more recent statements, she said that although she disagrees with current Maryland labor law, she would not attempt to dismantle Glendening's executive order if elected.
"It's like the genie is out of the bottle," she recently told the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. "I'm not sure how the next governor can [rescind it] without ending up in court."
State business leaders, among her strongest supporters, have been disappointed by her recent statements on labor.
"I don't think politicians want to aggravate any group in a community, but you have to stand for certain principles," said A. Samuel Cook, a Baltimore lawyer who has represented the state Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.
Sauerbrey has consistently described herself as opposing abortion. She vigorously opposed a 1992 referendum that Maryland voters passed supporting abortion rights, and while in the legislature she voted to restrict Medicaid funding for abortions and against restrictions on blocking access to abortion clinics.
But now, Sauerbrey says that the 1992 referendum reflected public views and that she would not do anything to infringe on the abortion rights established by the vote.
She has said that she would seek a ban on "partial birth" abortions. She calls the procedure, in which late-term fetuses are partially delivered before being aborted, "infanticide." Sauerbrey also wants to tighten minors' access to abortions and would seek to restrict Medicaid funding for abortions as well.
"There are areas that the  law did not really speak to or are very fuzzy," she said. "I believe the majority of people are opposed to partial-birth abortion. And I'm not going to hesitate to state where I stand on it. I don't think that most Marylanders want to fund abortions for birth control and convenience reasons. Medical necessity is a different story."
Sauerbrey has been endorsed by Maryland Right to Life, whose president, Joseph DuBay, said that despite talk of Sauerbrey moderating her views, "she really hasn't changed."
"I have no evidence that tells me that" she is backing away from her opposition to abortion, he said. "She's the best candidate we have."
Abortion-rights advocates are backing Glendening and said that Sauerbrey's partial-birth abortion ban would be a serious setback for their cause. The governor had pledged to veto a proposed ban that died in the General Assembly this year.
"As far as we're concerned, that's encroaching on the lives and health of the women of Maryland," said Traci Siegel, executive director of the Maryland branch of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.
"We're seeing the re-crafting of Ellen Sauerbrey for this race," Siegel said. "She's softening herself on a lot of issues, and abortion is one of them."
Sauerbrey has said she would not seek the repeal of the one-gun-a-month law approved by the General Assembly in 1996, though she says such laws are ineffective. While in the legislature, she consistently voted against bans on assault weapons and other guns and proposals requiring gun owners to help keep their weapons unaccessible to minors.
Her stance earned her the endorsement of the National Rifle Association four years ago, and the organization has raised money for her. (This year, an NRA spokesman says the group has not made its endorsement decisions yet.)
In announcing her crime initiative last week, she advocated increased mandatory sentences for those who use guns while committing crimes but again called bans ineffective.
"If gun control kept criminals from using guns to commit crimes, we would not have crime in areas like Washington or Boston, which have very tough gun controls," she said.
Nancy Fenton, executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, criticized Sauerbrey's stance. "If we can get rid of illegal guns used by criminals, that's going to cut crime," she said. "We like gubernatorial candidates who support more proactive legislation in terms of gun control."
Sauerbrey's decision not to focus on some of the traditional conservative social issues such as abortion has concerned some of her core supporters. They worry that her strategy not only will alienate conservatives but also is reflective of a bigger change in Sauerbrey. They say she is embracing a more sophisticated campaign style and is forgetting her grass-roots approach of four years ago that appealed to so many.
"They're going to vote for her, but they're not going to work for her like last time," fretted one key Republican privately.
Other GOP strategists -- including some of Sauerbrey's top advisers -- say her core supporters will stick with her and understand that she has to broaden her appeal to the majority of voters by emphasizing her tax cut and pro-business approach to state government.
"If what she's doing is presenting a more complete picture of her background . . . then that's good," said Baltimore County Republican chairman Christopher West. "It shows people have the capacity to illuminate different elements of their political mindset."
But Glendening has made little secret of his intention to remind voters of a Sauerbrey record he says is out of the mainstream of Maryland. "What you have here is a progressive and responsible agenda versus a far-right agenda, and I think the public has a right to know that," he said in a recent interview.
Asked about her past conservative rhetoric, Sauerbrey said simply, "I have tried to learn to be more moderate in the way I express myself."
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