CHESTERTOWN – She has been running 15 minutes late all day, but Ellen Sauerbrey still takes time to stop and greet everyone she meets, whether they’re the waitresses at a retirement brunch, community business leaders or just people on the street.
“Are you Marylanders?” she asks a couple walking down the street in Chestertown.
“No, we’re just visiting from New Jersey,” the woman replies.
“Spend money,” Sauerbrey tells them with a smile. “We need all we can get.”
Sauerbrey is talking to everybody these days. It’s part of a “more mature” campaign than she ran in 1994, when she lost a bitter race to now-Gov. Parris Glendening by a mere 5,993 votes, one of the closest gubernatorial races in Maryland history.
For Sauerbrey, a Republican, the issues in the governor’s race are the same this time around — tougher sentences for criminals, more funding for education and a bigger income tax cut.
But almost everything else has changed.
The Democratic party appears to be divided, with Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke endorsing a rival of Glendening, who is running for re-election.
Sauerbrey, who ran a $1 million publicly financed campaign last time, expects to raise $5 million for this campaign. She has been campaigning almost non-stop for four years, instead of the eight weeks she had to campaign after winning the GOP nomination in an upset in 1994.
And she has high name recognition this time around. But that could be both a blessing and curse for Sauerbrey, who was labeled a sore loser after she went to court alleging voter fraud in the 1994 election.
“In the last election, many people became disillusioned after she made spurious and outrageous allegations in Anne Arundel Circuit Court. That left a bad taste in the mouths of many voters,” said Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, D- Prince George’s.
Some pollsters agree.
“What she has to overcome is not the lasting impression of a nearly victorious campaign, but that of a bitter loser,” said Carol Arscott, vice president of Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research Inc. of Columbia. “In many ways, she’s her biggest opponent.”
Arscott was a press secretary for Sauerbrey’s campaign, but was dismissed in 1996 over differences with the campaign manager.
But Sauerbrey brushed aside suggestions that the bitter taste from 1994 would taint her new campaign.
“We start out with 100 percent name recognition this time,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about people not knowing who I am.”
Polls back her up. An April 9 Mason-Dixon poll gave Glendening 45 percent of the vote to Sauerbrey’s 40 percent, with 14 percent of the voters undecided.
Sauerbrey and her campaign managers said they have learned from the mistakes of 1994.
“I don’t want to say that we have a more professional approach this time,” said Jim Dornan, a campaign spokesman. “But we are taking a more mature approach.”
That approach includes increased campaign funding, more concentration on urban areas and an intensive advertising campaign.
“In ’94, we had a failure to understand the media,” Sauerbrey said.
Sauerbrey, a former biology teacher, was the relatively unknown minority leader of the Maryland House when she launched her previous bid. In that race, she used public campaign funds, which limited her budget to $1 million. Glendening spent nearly three times that amount.
This time, Sauerbrey said she will devote more time to fund raising. By November, she had raised $2.5 million. Her goal is to raise $5 million before the September GOP primary, where her only competition so far is Howard County Executive Charles Ecker.
Sauerbrey said raising money is “not my favorite thing,” but it is necessary. In the eight weeks between the primary and election, “media costs are about $500,000 a week.”
Though she has managed to bring in contributors, supporters say her real political strength lies in her grass-roots campaign style. And this time around, she has the time and the ability to build public support through a bigger and broader campaign.
Sauerbrey was not able to concentrate on major urban areas in 1994 and it showed in the results. Sauerbrey carried every county except the three biggest: Baltimore City and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.
Sauerbrey said she will concentrate on urban areas in this campaign, something she can do now that she is the front-runner for the nomination.
“In ’94, I had to spend all my time on a very tough primary. I was forced to be talking exclusively with Republicans,” she said. “Now I don’t have to focus on a Republican-based vote.”
After losing her court challenge to the last election, Sauerbrey spent two years hosting a radio talk show in Baltimore and worked for U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm’s presidential campaign in 1996. But she spent most of her time mounting another campaign, which she formally announced last May.
“I don’t think Ellen ever stopped running,” Dornan said.
While she was laying the groundwork for another run, however, state Democrats were adopting some of Sauerbrey’s issues as their own.
After opposing the income tax cuts Sauerbrey called for in 1994, lawmakers last year approved a 10 percent cut over four years. This year, the governor and General Assembly accelerated the pace of that cut.
Sauerbrey said is not concerned that Glendening will try to take credit for the tax cut, which she said is good for the state.
“It vindicates me,” she said. “(Glendening) will trumpet the tax cut because it happened on his watch, but I think people’s memories are long enough to remember who started it.”
She also hopes their memories are long enough to remember the ethics questions that have dogged Glendening and other Democratic lawmakers.
“One party has dominated Maryland for all my lifetime,” Sauerbrey tells a crowd at the Heron Point community in Chestertown.
“Having more Republicans is important. It ensures that they’re a watchdog,” she said. “And if there was ever a time we needed a watchdog, it’s now.”
Maryland Democrats still hold a 2-to-1 registration edge in the state, but the GOP is buoyed by the fact that new Republican registrations have outstripped Democrats since 1994.
“We have a great opportunity to see true change,” Sauerbrey tells the crowd at Heron Point. “All we need to do is clean up and change some of the public policy.”
Later in the day, as she walks down the street in Chestertown, a woman comes up and wishes her luck. Sauerbrey smiles.
“Thank you,” she says. “But help me make it.”