For Sauerbrey, Past vs. Present
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 12, 1998; Page D01
The affable lady on the television screen who talks about growing up in a Baltimore row house as the daughter of a Bethlehem Steel millworker is the picture the Republican candidate for governor of Maryland wants voters to think of next month.
But the image some Marylanders cannot get out of their minds is of a far different Ellen R. Sauerbrey: that of a sore loser.
Indeed, Sauerbrey did not concede the closely contested 1994 gubernatorial election until three days before Parris N. Glendening (D) was inaugurated, and only after a bitter, emotionally charged lawsuit challenging the results was rejected in court.
Few could blame Sauerbrey, a Republican, for wondering whether she got a fair count from an election apparatus controlled for so long by Democrats that there wasn't even a mechanism for a recount. Moreover, many Republicans credit Sauerbrey's court challenge with improving the state's voting procedures: A law providing for a general election recount was enacted in 1996, and Baltimore now has new voting machines and better-trained election judges.
But the sensational nature of some of Sauerbrey's charges -- she accused Democrats of stuffing ballot boxes in Baltimore but offered little evidence -- raised questions of judgment that have carried over to her rematch with Glendening this year. So did some curious decisions, such as showing up at a conference of Republican governors despite her apparent defeat.
One-third of likely voters polled by The Washington Post recently said they thought Sauerbrey did not conduct herself well in the 1994 election, and even some of her supporters say her failure to concede earlier represented a lapse that has burdened this year's campaign.
"I didn't care for her conduct in the last election," said George Casey, a Crofton Republican who voted for Sauerbrey's opponent in the GOP primary this year. "She was very emotional and resorted to the sort of name-calling I can't support."
After a Circuit Court judge concluded that she had failed to prove her case four years ago, Sauerbrey declared: "I will always believe we won the election." In more recent months, however, she has scrapped such rhetoric, saying the episode is behind her.
"I have regrets, because there were mistakes," Sauerbrey said in a recent interview. "But I would hope that the characteristics of fighting for what you believe to be right are not perceived as totally negative characteristics. . . . I took some bad advice and I have to be responsible for some of the advice that we took. But that whole effort ended in January of 1995, and I've tried to move forward, and I hope people are going to join me in wanting to go forward and not look back."
Some independent analysts think that's possible. Herb Smith, a political science professor at Western Maryland College, who assessed Sauerbrey's protest in a 1995 article titled "Dead Men Don't Vote," thinks the "sour grapes" image won't have significant impact on this year's vote. "It will just reinforce existing perceptions but won't impact people who are attracted to her message," Smith predicted.
Glendening isn't going to make it easy for people to forget. One of his new campaign commercials says, "She couldn't admit she lost."
Sauerbrey's suspicion that the election had been stolen began shortly after the polls closed on Nov. 8, 1994. She had taken the lead in the vote count early and held it throughout the evening, but as the night wore on, Glendening votes started rolling in. By the time a dejected Sauerbrey left her headquarters about 2 a.m., her lead had vanished, thanks to late-arriving votes from Baltimore City.
On the drive home from her victory party, Sauerbrey turned to her husband, Wilmer, and said, "I won that damned election, and all we have to do is prove it."
Sauerbrey had carried 21 of the state's 24 jurisdictions. But the three places she lost are the most populous -- the City of Baltimore and Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- and rumors abounded among staunch Sauerbrey supporters about alleged Democratic chicanery.
There were rumors about a "lost precinct" in downtown Baltimore and the "100 percent precinct," where everyone eligible voted. Bizarre conspiracy theories were rampant among GOP loyalists, including "the Kennedy precedent": Hadn't John F. Kennedy stolen the 1960 election in Chicago, and wasn't Glendening's running mate, Kathleen Townsend Kennedy, a daughter of Robert F. Kennedy?
Because she couldn't demand a recount, Sauerbrey geared up for a lawsuit, a process that dragged on virtually to the eve of Glendening's inauguration more than two months after the election.
She raised more than $400,000 -- $25,000 of it from the National Rifle Association -- to finance the costly legal process. At a fund-raiser in Baltimore, then-Senate Majority Leader and soon-to-be presidential nominee Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) said, "The battle's not over yet. If we stand for anything in our party, it's integrity at the ballot box."
To prepare her appeal, Sauerbrey turned her headquarters in the Baltimore suburb of Timonium into a two-story bunker, requiring photo IDs to enter. The walls were filled with posters -- "One Man, Five Votes," "Ellen Sauerbrey IS Governor" and, next to a picture of a ghost, "I Voted Too."
More than 900 volunteers worked round-the-clock for two months, amassing and photocopying nearly half a million voting records, comparing them against lists of the dead, prisoners and others who should have been purged from the rolls. They vented their frustrations by smacking a three-foot inflatable doll adorned with Glendening's face. They slept, if at all, in nearby motels.
Several of Sauerbrey's original lawyers quit after she spent $100,000 to hire a New Jersey lawyer and election specialist with a national reputation for aggressive tactics in uncovering election fraud to supervise the investigation.
On Thanksgiving eve, when the official canvass was announced -- Glendening was declared the victor by 5,993 votes, out of 1.4 million cast -- Sauerbrey released a one-sentence statement that summed up her view: "Everybody knows that turkeys weren't the only thing that was being stuffed in Baltimore city this month."
Two days after Christmas, when Sauerbrey's attorneys filed a lawsuit in Anne Arundel Circuit Court, they alleged that nearly 50,000 votes had been cast illegally. The suit sought either that Sauerbrey be installed as governor or that a new election be ordered.
But by the start of the week-long hearing, on Jan. 9, 1995, the credibility of her more sensational charges had eroded. She had charged that 37 dead people had voted, but in just two days, Washington Post reporters found 18 of them alive. Sauerbrey also had to back away from charges of fraud, and instead concentrated on sloppy election procedures; the number of challenged votes was cut to just 3,600, not enough to change the result of the election even if all the contested ballots were thrown out.
A gleeful Glendening attorney derided the suit as "the incredible shrinking case."
Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Raymond G. Theime Jr., a Democrat who made public that he had voted for Sauerbrey, ruled that about 1,800 votes had been cast by Baltimore City voters whose names should have been purged from voting rolls. But he said Sauerbrey had provided no "clear and convincing" evidence that procedural errors, much less fraud, had materially affected the "purity of the election."
Nonetheless, a defiant Sauerbrey reiterated afterward that "this election was stolen and the ballot boxes were stuffed" and vowed she would "never, never, never" give up. "This is the end of Round One," she said. That night, 500 Sauerbrey supporters raised $100,000 for an appeal, but the next day, one of her attorneys convinced her that the odds were against prevailing.
So Sauerbrey finally gave up, still declaring, "I will always believe we won the election. The problem is, we weren't able to prove it in the time we were given. . . . There comes a time when your head has to rule your heart."
Then she added, "I want to wish the incoming governor well."
Although the court case was over, the political fallout continues to this day, even among her supporters.
"She never apologized for making all those wild accusations about voter fraud," recalled Glendening's lawyer, Bruce Marcus. "When she gave a deposition, all she could say was that she heard them on a street corner. It's hardly fiscally conservative to pursue rumors at taxpayers' expense."
Even some of her supporters remain dissatisfied with her performance at that time.
"The plug should have been pulled a lot sooner than it was," said former Republican state senator Howard A. Denis, who with former U.S. representative Helen Delich Bentley lost to Sauerbrey in the 1994 GOP primary. "But there's no point in harping on it. You can't unring the bell. She's got to look to the future."
Kevin Igoe, a former executive director of the state Republican Party who was Sauerbrey's political director, said, "Certainly some people think the election was stolen, but politically, Ellen is best served by getting over that."
Igoe pointed out that "Ellen doesn't talk about it on her own" anymore because she realizes that "the worst thing that can happen is to have a rerun" of her complaints.
Del. Robert L. Flanagan (R-Howard), one of Sauerbrey's biggest boosters, admits that "there's no question people find it difficult to accept Ellen's legal battles from the last time." But he added, "The public doesn't appreciate the hostile and unfair environment in which she had to run her campaign."
Try as Sauerbrey may to look ahead, others remember.
In last month's primary, a number of Republicans said they voted for Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker for governor to protest Sauerbrey's conduct of four years ago.
"If you lose by one vote, maybe. Otherwise, you should leave well enough alone," said Nancy Pope, 59, of Columbia. Joan Lea, 75, of Rockville, said, "Justified or not," Sauerbrey's prolonged protest in 1994 "showed herself."
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