A Maryland swing voter weighs two evils.

Politics and policy.
Sept. 27 2002 4:40 PM

Grudge Match

A Maryland swing voter weighs two evils.

I'm used to covering elections as an outsider. This one is different. The debate I watched last night was the first and possibly last between the two principal candidates for governor of Maryland. Most national reporters are interested in this race because the Democrat is Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of Bobby Kennedy. I'm interested in it because the race is very close, and I'm one of the swing voters who will decide it.

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I grew up in Texas, a state run by knee-jerk conservatives. If you're the Republican nominee for any office in Texas, all you have to do is point to your Democratic opponent and say, "This election is about values. My opponent has liberal values. I have Texas values." Every Republican knows which buttons to push: The other guy is for raising taxes, he's soft on crime, he's for banning guns, he wants special rights for homosexuals. Nobody cares that these issues are marginal or grossly distorted. It's a conservative state. You make clear that you're the conservative candidate. You win.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Maryland, where I've lived for the past two years, is the opposite. Here, instead of being to the left of the average voter, I'm to the right. Liberals have run this state for ages. A week or two after I moved here, I read an article in which the president of the state Senate described Maryland's politics as "European." I practically gagged. I registered to vote here as an independent. The Maryland GOP was happy to let me vote in its primary. But the Maryland Democratic Party doesn't let independents vote in its primary, because it feels no need to. It's fat and powerful and complacent. I'm dying to knock it off its throne.

Townsend has a reputation as a bystander, but also as the kind of Democratic centrist who appeals to me. I like the courage and good judgment she shows on some issues. She's against state-promoted gambling, and she talks in Clintonian terms about helping people to help themselves. "I'm not interested in ideology," she says. "I want results."

But ideology proves to be her chief selling point. She knew it would win her the debate (which was held at a historically black college and sponsored by the Baltimore NAACP) and probably the election. Maryland politics is Texas politics upside-down. If you're the Democratic nominee, all you have to do is call your opponent conservative, as Townsend does tonight. On every issue, she says the Republican nominee, Rep. Bob Ehrlich, has "very different values" from her and from the people of Maryland.

And what exactly are Ehrlich's reprehensible positions? Townsend says the congressman voted to cut this or that federal program—never mind whether the program works, whether the federal government should be running it, or whether the "cut" is just a reduction of a planned spending increase. At one point, Townsend reports indignantly that Ehrlich deemed a huge budget item "unaffordable and unwise." She says he voted for vouchers. She says he voted five times against raising the minimum wage. It isn't clear whether that means liberals increased the minimum wage five times, or whether they staged five votes on the same increase to embarrass conservatives. Worst of all, says Townsend, Ehrlich favors "affirmative action based on wealth" instead of race. She rattles off a list of budget-feeding liberal interest groups that oppose him.

In a nutshell, Ehrlich sounds like my kind of guy. I'd like to pull the lever for him, but I discover that I can't. The problem isn't his politics. It's his personality, which I'm witnessing for the first time. He's a backslapper, a sneerer, a grudge carrier—the kind of guy who coaches junior-high sports because he gets off on the fear, loyalty, and cliquish camaraderie of adolescent males. He straddles the podium like a cowboy. "Good to see ya, buddy," he says knowingly to NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. "That president standing right there is my own friend and colleague," he boasts at one point. To his black running mate, Ehrlich says, "Proud of ya, pal. Thanks for bein' here. Great job." He brags over and over about having won 13 elections. Addressing the overwhelmingly black audience, he repeatedly congratulates himself for venturing beyond his "comfort zone."

Ehrlich turns out to be the sort of politician who insults his opponent so often, gratuitously, and unpleasantly that he makes you want to vote for her. If he isn't a sexist, he's doing a hell of an impersonation. Again and again, he calls Townsend "confused." He cocks his head and points his finger derisively at her. He scoffs that she's never been elected to anything on her own. "I don't know what you know about student loans, ma'am," he says at one point. "Please let me clue you in a little bit."

Here's a clue for Ehrlich. When you're running against a family dynasty and a political machine, try not to be a jerk. It confuses voters like me who are itching to send a message.