In the murky world of election-year politics, a candidate's slightest false move often can be transformed into a political beacon, obscuring all other achievements and becoming a symbol of a defeat in the making.
That's why Prince George's political observers are pondering the effects of the budget battle between the school board and County Executive Lawrence Hogan, a Republican who would like to replace Democrat Paul Sarbanes in the U.S. Senate this fall.
In March, Hogan slashed proposed school funding to $300.9 million--less than the current budget and some $36 million below what educators sought for next year. He argued that the school board request "blithely ignored" the county's fiscal constraints and was unfair to other departments. Though the County Council restored about $5 million, the budget passed June 1 left the school board facing the prospect of laying off close to 1,000 employes, a dilemma it is trying to resolve this week.
Though the council passed Hogan's budget virtually intact, and all policymakers are hamstrung by the effects of TRIM, a charter-mandated limit on the revenue the county can collect from property taxes, Hogan is catching the brunt of the blame for fiscal problems afflicting the schools.
"I hope it is not lost on the people here and the public at large that the real villain in this situation is Larry Hogan," teachers' union President John Sisson told the school board last week, as he accused Hogan of underestimating revenues.
Hogan has insisted that the layoffs are unnecessary--if the board refuses to fund a negotiated teachers' contract. But he privately has conceded that they are unlikely to do so. All of which leaves Hogan, a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, with the potentially damaging label of fostering layoffs in a year when nationwide and statewide unemployment are at post-World War II highs and a Republican president is being held responsible.
"Why do this in an election year?" Hogan said in an interview last week. "We couldn't play politics with the thing. It had to be done . . . I've never worried about (doing the right thing) and I've always won my elections."
Hogan maintains that voters will recognize that he has made difficult decisions in a difficult time and will respect him for it.
State Republican Chairman Dr. Allan C. Levey believes Hogan's stance will win support. "He's worked with TRIM, which is what the people wanted and voted for," said Levey. "More people will be impressed by the fact that he's kept government spending down, he's cut taxes and he's been a good administrator . . . I think the positive will outweigh the negative."
Hogan's campaign manager, Charles Michael Hoback, said that even if the layoffs issue does arise, the Hogan strategy will likely be to pin the blame on the teachers for refusing to negotiate salary givebacks to save jobs at a time when unions all over the country are doing just that. "I was left with the impression that everybody bites the bullet except the unionized teachers," said Hoback. "I don't think everybody's going to have a whole lot of sympathy with those teachers."
Yet other chiefly Democratic voices see the seeds of a Hogan defeat in the bitterness being generated by the whole dispute. Council Chairman Gerard McDonough recently paid for a professional pollster to survey his Kettering-Largo area district, and found that "voters are turning away from the Republican philosophy, by virtue of the very high negative ratings of the president and the county executive."
The poll, he said, found that about 60 percent of voters had an unfavorable view of Hogan. It also showed that voters are happy with the teachers but dissatisfied with schools, and evenly divided over whether they want to modify TRIM.
McDonough believes that his racially integrated district of 24,000 voters is a microcosm of the county, with a few differences: Voter registration is 4 to 1 Democratic, compared to a countywide Democratic edge of 3 to 1. His district, which misses Hogan's home by a few blocks, is possibly more affluent and slightly more integrated (about 50 percent black) than the county at large. To account for these factors, McDonough said, he would take 10 percent off the Hogan rating, bringing it to an even 50-50 favorable-unfavorable.
"A 50 percent unfavorability rating is high," said McDonough's brother John, a former aide to Hogan's predecessor, Winfield Kelly. "At no time when Kelly was county executive did it reach that high . . . You can't afford to lose too many councilmanic districts by 2 to 1 and expect to beat Sarbanes in Prince George's." The poll also showed Sarbanes beating Hogan 2 to 1 in that district.
John McDonough, one of the most experienced political strategists in the county, said that a candidate's negative ratings translate into people who are determined to vote against him, and thus, if the survey is accurate, a significant portion of the voters will go to the polls with Hogan's defeat in mind.
This is important, said John McDonough, because Republicans tend to win statewide races in Maryland by making inroads into Democratic enclaves like Baltimore City, Montgomery and Prince George's, and sweeping the more conservative southern, western and eastern counties by substantial margins.
Yet these outlying areas are the places hardest hit by layoffs, and where, according to recent polls, concern about unemployment is highest. The combination of unpopularity at home and a lukewarm reception beyond would easily spell defeat for Hogan, said John McDonough.
Hogan supporters naturally scoff at the McDonough findings. "A councilmanic district is a tiny sliver of the millions of people who make up a Senate campaign," said Lawrence Hogan Jr. "I bet if you break it down even further and went to McDonough's house we'd have even worse ratings." Though Hogan refused to present his father's own poll ratings, he said his father's rating is better than 1 to 1, and has improved since last fall, "since we've spent about $200,000 on campaigning."