Voters should remember that they're electing a person, not an issue.
Ike was president, Theodore McKeldin was governor and women lawmakers were viewed as curiosities back in 1954 when Peg Schweinhaut first joined the Maryland General Assembly.
Montgomery County legislators routinely excluded her, the county's lone woman delegate, from their political powwows. For example, when Montgomery and Prince George's counties caucused to nominate Perry Wilkinson speaker, "I wasn't invited," recalls Schweinhaut. So she supported John C. Luber instead, advising her colleagues that "You had all these meetings without me. You look upon me as having no importance even though I was elected too. So if you're going to ignore me, I'm going to ignore you."
The Montgomery men weren't happy when Luber won and turned control of the delegation's committee assignments over to Schweinhaut. But Schweinhaut told Luber, "Let them have what they want. I don't want revenge. I simply want them not to have meetings without me."
Unfortunately, the men were slow learners. Again they met, this time secretly agreeing to support a fishing ban fiercely opposed by the Eastern Shore. When the bill died by a single vote, Schweinhaut's, the Eastern Shore delegates gave out a "Whoopee!" and Capt. W. Randolph Harrison, a Talbot County waterman jumped to his feet, steamed down the aisle to the startled Montgomery County delegation and roared at Schweinhaut, "You're the only goddamned woman who deserves to be in the legislature!"
Fortunately, Maryland voters ignored Harrison and continued to elect women. Today 43 women make law in Annapolis, including Peg Schweinhaut, Montgomery's first woman senator.
In 1978 Patty Sher was a political campaign worker who realized that she was as good as the men who were getting elected. With the blessing of Schweinhaut, she won a seat in the House of Delegates. They became allies, together representing Kensington-Chevy Chase and together running for reelection. But that was before the abortion filibuster. Today they are locked in a struggle for Schweinhaut's senate seat.
Last year the Supreme Court threw the abortion issue back to the states. In Maryland, Patty Sher led the effort to codify abortion on demand -- it was one of her most visible feats, as she rarely speaks on the floor and misses more votes than any other Montgomery County delegate. Schweinhaut, on the other hand, helped filibuster Sher's bill to death in the Senate. The eight-day filibuster was the most vituperative fight of the Annapolis season.
Now the two are at war, both busily misrepresenting each other's stance on abortion. Though you may hear different on the campaign trail, Sher is comfortable with the Roe v. Wade decision, while Schweinhaut supports abortion only in cases of rape, incest, a malformed fetus or for the protection of the mother's physical well-being.
But the danger in District 18, as elsewhere, is that in such highly charged, "single-issue" races, voters may forget they're electing a person, not an issue. Schweinhaut is accenting the person. Sher is accenting the issue -- abortion. She's dubbed her ticket the "Choice Team." And at a county Democratic nominating convention this spring, where both she and Schweinhaut addressed the delegates, Sher talked about nothing more than reproductive rights. Schweinhaut, on the other hand, never mentioned abortion, speaking instead of her record.
It's a record that is both broad and deep. At 85, she's still one of the senate's hardest workers. "I've never seen her miss an important vote," says senate president Mike Miller, who voted against Schweinhaut on abortion. "When she rises to speak, you can hear a pin drop." "She imparts wisdom. ... She is one of the few senators who can change votes by simply voicing her opinion."
Schweinhaut's recent legislative record, in fact, points to the folly of characterizing the race in terms of the abortion issue. Her voting pattern shows that she is more of a "feminist" than her opponent, the abortion question notwithstanding. Schweinhaut, for example, voted in 1986 as NOW would have wanted her to and favored a bill that would have prohibited sex discrimination in insurance company ratings (Sher opposed the bill). This session, Schweinhaut voted in ways that would have helped women on bills pertaining to family leave, equal pay, child support and spouse abuse. (Sher helped kill the family-leave bill and didn't vote on the others.)
Perhaps Sher unwittingly sticks the pin in the single-issue balloon when she says: "I wasn't elected to be a woman delegate."
Joe Curran, Maryland's attorney general and an abortion-rights advocate, got it right when he said Schweinhaut is "a remarkable lady who shouldn't be judged on a single issue." He should know. When he was the only legislator supporting Medicaid abortions in Baltimore's heavily Irish-Catholic 3rd district, his parish priest attacked him from the pulpit. Antiabortion flyers were circulated. But voters sent him back to the senate anyway. They knew that the right candidate can be wrong on a single issue, but that no single issue is worth electing the wrong candidate.
The politics in District 18 may be reversed, but the voters should arrive at the same conclusion. -- Blair Lee
is a vice president of a Silver Spring development firm.