Republican Robert A. Pascal went on the offensive in Maryland's gubernatorial race yesterday, but his effort to embarrass incumbent Democrat Harry Hughes on issues relating to crime ran into some snags.
To support his charge that Hughes has mishandled the state's corrections system, the Anne Arundel County executive produced two women related to persons murdered by parolees released during Hughes' term as governor. But the women said after a press conference that they didn't blame Hughes, but the system, for their tragedies.
Pascal also charged that no prison construction had occurred under Hughes, even though new facilities are being built in Hagerstown and Baltimore.
Finally, under questioning by reporters, Pascal admitted that most of his criticism centered on liberal corrections policies that Hughes had abandoned -- under fire from the legislature -- nearly 18 months ago.
The Pascal campaign had been planning the day for more than a week, hoping to capitalize on his big primary victory. Two press conferences were held, in Montgomery County and in Baltimore, to gain maximum media attention.
"Today we're going to talk about what I think is mismanagement of correction policies in the state," Pascal said at his Wheaton headquarters, flanked by color-coded bar charts showing crime on the rise.
He said that Maryland, under Hughes, had seen a rise in violent crime and in the number of former convicts on probation and parole. He also accused Hughes of wasting taxpayers money by "studying to death" a proposal to build new prisons.
Hughes, aware that the attack was coming, reponded through spokesman Norm Silverstein that "the Republican candidate is playing fast and loose with the facts." Silverstein cited statistics showing that the administration had embarked on the largest prison construction project in the state's history -- though only after more than two years of legislative pressure. He also said that violent crime has gone down in the last year.
State corrections officials also produced figures showing that paroles and commutations under Hughes were less than during the four years prior to his taking office.
Of Pascal's introduction of the two Baltimore County women -- Fran Hviding and Rita Furst -- Silverstein said, "It is regrettable that the Republican candidate is attempting to exploit the tragedy of the families of victims of crime for political purposes."
Pascal said the women came to him after being frustrated by what they considered a lack of responsiveness on Hughes' part. "I wanted to show people that there are people behind the statistics they read," Pascal said. "When the ladies were invited to come here today, we told them exactly what was involved, so if they wanted to say no they could do so."
The women, both Democrats, said they were supporting Pascal. "I don't blame Hughes, I blame the system," said Hviding. But, she added, "I think Mr. Pascal is the kind of man who can change the system."
Hviding, whose 22-year-old son was killed in 1981, said that Hughes never responded to a letter she wrote.
Furst, whose husband was murdered in 1981, said she spoke with Hughes in March and he offered to help her circulate a petition demanding tougher crime measures, but she said he never got back to her.
According to corrections officials, the two men convicted of the murders had been paroled through regular procedures. One had served time for burglary, the other for burglary with a deadly weapon. Both men are now on death row.
Pascal began the general election campaign by talking about prisons and crime because he perceives Hughes is weak in those areas. During Hughes' first three years, legislators repeatedly criticized Hughes and his corrections department for alleged mismanagement and overly lenient reform philosophies that they said threatened the public safety of Marylanders.
The department was then headed by Hughes appointee Gordon Kamka, who opposed new prison construction and pushed a policy of community-based rehabilitation and early parole. Then in 1981, a Baltimore City grand jury indicted 27 prisoners living in a state prerelease center on charges of murder, rape and robbery.
Kamka was forced to resign, and Hughes, faced with a mounting public outcry, backed away from the liberal policies. Hoping to defuse the issue, he appointed a new, hard-line corrections chief, eliminated the early release program and changed his position on the construction of a new maximum security prison, saying he now supported it.
At the time, Hughes denied he was flip-flopping on the issue for political purposes and characterized his changed posture as an "evolution" that showed he responded to criticism. During the last legislative session, and with the governor's race only months away, Hughes for the first time included money in his budget for a new prison in Hagerstown.