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The bloodiest -- and most preposterous -- political slugfest of 2002.

9.11.02

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Every two years about this time the gloves come off and we're reminded why politics is often the most vicious bloodsport. This campaign season is no exception, with any number of political slugfests underway. California has Davis vs. Simon, South Dakota has Johnson vs. Thune, and New Hampshire just suffered the primary battle of Smith vs. Sununu.

These contests have indeed been brutal, but they only rate spots on the undercard of electoral pugilism. Those are relatively straightforward bouts -- contests between candidates vying for the same job, quibbling over the issues, parrying with the well-timed negative ad, and thrusting with their blow-dried personalities.

The Main Attraction this season has been more parts wrestling match than heavyweight title fight (and no, Jesse Ventura's not involved). It has been dirty and lowdown, and downright wacky to boot.

How wacky? This contest has featured dueling two-term Democratic Governors who despise one another, along with nasty charges of racism in a state with a large black voting bloc and large doses of vitriol and personal pique. All this over an election for -- get this -- state comptroller. Oh, and the guy slinging most of the mud in last minute dirty ads? He's a lame duck who's not running for anything.

This could only happen in Maryland, a state crazy enough to produce Alan Keyes and crooked enough to spawn Spiro Agnew.

In one corner is William Donald Schaefer, the wildly popular former mayor of Baltimore (he also served eight years as Maryland's governor, but being mayor was his preference) who now serves as comptroller.

Marylanders have a thing for installing beloved politicians in the comptroller's office. Nobody knows what the job is supposed to do. They just know that they want someone they like doing it. So it was only natural in 1998 when Schaefer ran to succeed Louie Goldstein, who died in office after holding it seemingly since the Harding Administration. Goldstein was what was known as a "Maryland institution," loved by voters precisely because he was, well, an institution. Goldstein's case was the political manifestation of the dictum about those who are well known simply for their well known-ness. Louie Goldstein was beloved for being beloved. Schaefer is the worthy inheritor of such affections.

In the other corner is the present Governor of Maryland, Parris Glendening, as loathed around the state as Schaefer is cherished. Glendening has less charisma than a turnip. His political success owes more to gross cronyism, corruption, and revenge politics than anything else.

Glendening is term-limited, so he's not running for re-election. Good thing, since he probably wouldn't win anyway. He squeaked into office eight years ago by a razor-thin margin in an election that appeared to have been stolen from the Republican candidate. He won handily against the same opponent four years later, but has done nothing to win the voters' fondness.

The two men have never been enamored of each other, and their feud reached new depths after Schaefer arrived in Annapolis as comptroller. Schaefer recently lambasted Glendening for profligate spending, which will leave the Free State more than $1 billion in the red when he leaves office in January. Moreover, last year Schaefer personally orchestrated the exposure of Glendening's dirtiest little secret: his affair with his much younger deputy chief of staff, for whom the Governor dumped his wife. (Glendening married the staffer last year.)

Glendening's response? To go after Schaefer with everything he has. Not content to ride out his term, Maryland's governor decided to wage all-out war on Schaefer. Glendening convinced a friend to challenge Schaefer in the Democratic primary for comptroller. Then the Governor spent tens of thousands of dollars left over from his 1998 re-election bid to finance ads trashing Schaefer. One of them pinned Schaefer as racist for once using the term "Afro-American" instead of "African-American." Another complained Schaefer has been AWOL on environmental issues.

None of it worked. Schaefer won his primary yesterday 2-1. Glendening's tactics only served to harden statewide sentiment against him. Residents of Maryland are now counting the days until they will be rid of their embarrassment of a governor.

Meanwhile state Democrats are livid at the unseemly sight of a sitting governor going to the mat to bring down one of his party's icons, especially when Glendening's would-be successor -- Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend -- needs all the help she can get against a surprisingly effective Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Bob Ehrlich.

A Kennedy running in a solidly Democratic state, Townsend was once assumed to be a shoo-in. Now analysts are saying it's too close to call. Some of the reasons have to do with Townsend's inadequacy as a campaigner. But a lot of it has to do with her connection to Paris Glendening.

Lame duck governors often spend their last months in office fretting about their legacies. Paris Glendening, on the other hand, started the summer with the petty intention of using his last months to target a fellow Democratic statewide officeholder for defeat.

Ironically, when the final bell rings, Glendening just might succeed. Except it won't be William Donald Schaefer he dooms. It'll be his own party's nominee for governor.

Some legacy.

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