ELLICOTT CITY – Eileen Rehrmann bucked her party eight years ago, unseating a Democratic Harford County executive who she said could not beat a Republican challenger for the job.
Now, Rehrmann is trying to unseat another Democratic incumbent — Gov. Parris Glendening — who she says cannot defeat likely Republican nominee Ellen Sauerbrey.
“This is not splitting the party,” said Rehrmann, a Democrat. “This is about who can be the strongest challenger to Ellen Sauerbrey. It’s important that we have the strongest people running for the party.
But Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, D-Prince George’s, said a Rehrmann candidacy will only help Sauerbrey.
“No incumbent governor in Maryland has been defeated in a primary in our history,” Miller said. “I’m certain she’s not going to win the primary. She’ll cause this governor to spend resources in a primary that he could use in November.”
But the no-nonsense Rehrmann has been running since November as the “strongest Democrat” — a claim that was boosted when Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke endorsed her over Glendening.
“She got in early and she’s bright and articulate,” said Democrat Sidney Kramer, a former Montgomery County executive.
He credited Rehrmann with running an excellent campaign in a primary that he said is “up for grabs.”
“I think there’s a split in the party,” Kramer said. “If you look at the polls, it becomes obvious that there are people who question Glendening’s integrity.”
Earlier this year, Glendening had the lowest approval rating of all 50 governors in a poll by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research Inc. In a mid-April poll by Mason-Dixon, Glendening ranked either 49th or 50th.
A spokesman for Glendening said the campaign does not “ride the pollercoaster.” But Rehrmann said the polls speak volumes.
“I want to be a governor the people can be proud of, a governor they can count on,” she says. Rehrmann, a blonde with a fire behind her piercing blue eyes, says she has leadership skills that Glendening does not.
But on a recent campaign swing through Ellicott City, Rehrmann was more friend than leader, listening intently to the concerns of the Main Street business owners she talked to.
Blair Jett, an Ellicott City antiques store owner and registered Democrat, said he will not vote for Glendening, but he has not made up his mind on Rehrmann, either. “Sauerbrey is a consideration,” Jett said.
Rehrmann, who can be icy at times, relaxed with the shopkeepers and their customers, chatting mostly about the weather.
She promised to make some calls about new parking restrictions that merchants did not like and got promises in return that she could hang signs in their shops and that they would look over her literature.
Taneytown resident Angela Lardell, 78, was charmed.
“We need fresh blood, a change of pace,” Lardell said of Rehrmann. “She’s a charming lady. She’s young enough to look at both sides of any issue and I wish her well.”
Mary Boergers, a 1994 Democratic gubernatorial contender, said she has been impressed by the way Rehrmann is campaigning.
“She doesn’t have the power and might of an incumbent and she can’t go from county to county and give out millions in school construction money,” said Boergers, a former state senator from Montgomery County.
But she said Rehrmann is running a great campaign, despite having raised less than $500,000 to Glendening’s $1.5 million, according to November campaign disclosure reports.
The power of incumbency will help Glendening widen the fund- raising gap, said Boergers.
“Maryland seems like a small place until you run for governor,” she said. “Unseating an incumbent governor is an exceedingly difficult thing to do.
“Incumbency can give the perception of broader institutional power. But I’m very impressed” with Rehrmann, said Boergers.
So far, Rehrmann’s campaign has consisted mostly of attacks on Glendening and positions that are 180 degrees removed from his.
A 24-page Rehrmann campaign flier attacks Glendening on everything from his stance on education to the deficit he left in Prince George’s to putting his name on highway signs. In it, she calls him “Gov. Spendening” for “playing Santa Claus with taxpayer money” with the budget surplus.
When Glendening changed his mind in March and said he opposed building the Inter-County Connector (ICC) between Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, Rehrmann’s camp blasted him.
Rehrmann advocates slot machines at horse tracks to subsidize education, a move that Glendening has vowed will not happen while he is governor.
She says he never made good on a promise last year to push for a 36-cent tax increase on tobacco products, with the money used to pay for programs to fight teen smoking.
But Glendening campaign spokesman Peter Hamm said the governor’s proposed cigarette tax was $1.50, not 36 cents.
“He worked very hard on that,” Hamm said. “But unfortunately the forces of death worked against him. It is the only tax increase he favors.”
Hamm said if Rehrmann wants to run as a leader “she should run a campaign that shows that, instead of attacking Glendening.”
Rehrmann’s platform calls for construction of a maximum- security prison for juvenile offenders, abolishing the state property tax and improving the quality of people’s lives.
Most of all, she said, she wants to bring Marylanders together to feel a sense of community statewide. And she makes it sound genuine.
“I’ll be a governor people can count on,” Rehrmann said. “I’m a strong fiscal manager. I watch their pocketbooks and I know how hard people work. And I know how important education is.”
The oldest of six children, she grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and attended Immaculata College in Philadelphia, but did not finish before starting her family.
Rehrmann, 53, finally earned her bachelor’s degree in management and government last year from the University of Maryland University College. But she said her proudest accomplishment has been raising her four children to be responsible adults.
Rehrmann, a former elementary school teacher, got her taste for political life in the PTA. She was elected to the Bel Air Town Council in 1979 and became president of the Maryland Municipal League in 1981.
In 1982, she won a seat from Harford County in the House of Delegates and served on the Appropriations Committee, where she said economic development was her first priority.
She was elected Harford County executive in 1990 and was re- elected in 1994. She is barred by term limits from running again.
During Rehrmann’s tenure, the county attracted Frito-Lay and Saks Fifth Avenue, which opened distribution centers in Harford.
She has opened a family resource center to educate young women and help some earn a general equivalency degree. She started a mentor program for at-risk kids and created the job of volunteer recruiter for the county.
“I’ve known Eileen since we’ve both had little kids,” said Del. Mary Louise Preis, D-Harford. “She has done a fine job.
“I think her strongest suit is her willingness to create a good business climate. She’s been very aggressive about economic development,” said Preis.
But other Democrats say Rehrmann should stay in the county for now.
“If she wants to be governor, she should sit and wait until there’s no Democrat in office,” Hamm said. “Everything she does helps Ellen Sauerbrey.”
Rehrmann said she will not be dissuaded by appeals to party loyalty.
“If you look at the executive inability of Maryland’s governor, people are very disappointed. They believe he makes decisions based on what’s best for Parris, not what’s good for the citizens in Maryland,” she said.
“I’ve never shied away from a difficult challenge.”