Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes swept through the state's westernmost counties Wednesday night and today on a combined campaign and economic development tour that enabled him to test some new political messages while traveling 220 miles across the state and 12,000 feet into the depths of a Garrett County coal mine.
Though careful to split his gubernatorial and political chores -- the state will be reimbursed for his use of the state car to travel to the political functions -- Hughes sounded throughout the trip a voice of moderation that he has begun to use to shape his underdog campaign for the U.S. Senate. The basic theme is what he calls a record of tough fiscal management coupled with social concern.
Changing into coveralls and rubber boots at one point and donning a hard hat and goggles at another, Hughes spoke to a Democratic club in Hagerstown Wednesday night, and took questions at a Chamber of Commerce meeting in Garrett County this morning before heading into the Mettikki Coal mine in Deer Park. A nearly century-old pulp and paper mill and a tire plant in Allegheny County came next, followed by a scheduled speech to another Democratic club in Cumberland tonight.
Long known as a defender of liberal causes such as civil rights, abortion rights and increased spending for education and the environment, Hughes portrayed himself here as a moderate whose experience sets him apart from the other Democratic contenders seeking the party's nomination in the Sept. 9 primary: Reps. Barbara A. Mikulski of Baltimore and Michael D. Barnes of Montgomery County, and Baltimore County Executive Donald Hutchinson.
"It's incredible to me -- it's incomprehensible to me -- that we really haven't had a federal budget in several years," Hughes told members of Hagerstown's United Democratic Club Wednesday night. "In this state, we don't have that luxury. We have to balance the budget every year. It seems to me that type of approach is what's needed [in Washington], not just someone who talks about making the tough decisions."
In response to a question about whether he would address the growing federal deficit by cutting taxes or reducing spending, Hughes said, "I think there's going to have to be some [spending] reductions -- as long as they're applied selectively."
The trip came at a time when Hughes faces renewed scrutiny for his handling of the savings and loans crisis that began a year ago Friday with the first runs on a Baltimore County thrift. The crisis has forced down Hughes' once-record popularity ratings for months and has been identified in polls as the state issue Maryland voters consider most important.
But during this trip Hughes highlighted positive accomplishments of his administration and cited economic development gains in Western Maryland -- including a new Citicorp plant in Hagerstown and an unemployment rate that has been halved since peaking at 18 percent a few years ago.
Several people interviewed here said Hughes has been and will continue to be well received. "The S&L issue was not a real big issue up here because we were not affected," said Richard Roulette, vice president of the Washington County Board of Commissioners. "I think the guy's done a good job. I think his accomplishments will outweigh the S&Ls."
A different view came from a Hagerstown Democrat and employe of the Mack Truck plant, which is threatening layoffs starting in September. "People worry about their money. And they wonder whether he's done enough -- just like they wonder whether he's doing enough about [the possible layoffs] at Mack."