POLITICAL INTERVIEW:

Epstein Challenges Schaefer in Hot Comptroller Race

by Alice Cherbonnier
As the General Election draws near--Tuesday, November 3--Marylanders are being told by media pundits and surveys that the gubernatorial race is a dead heat.
     The Comptroller’s race, also very important, is also up for grabs. Yet no one is yet hazarding a guess whether William Donald Schaefer--former Baltimore City Mayor and former Maryland Governor--will benefit, or suffer, from name recognition at the polls. The nearly 77-year-old candidate entered the race when longtime Comptroller Louis Goldstein died this summer.
     Schaefer easily won the Democratic slot in the Primary Election. Now he faces a formidable Republican opponent in the General Election: Larry M. Epstein, 50.
     Like Schaefer, Epstein only entered the race after Goldstein died, joining a field of three other Republican candidates. Epstein won the Primary by eight votes.
     Epstein ran against Goldstein for Comptroller in 1990 and the two became friends, sharing lunches and information. “I liked him too well to run against him in ’94,” said Epstein. “I thought I would run when he retired.”
     A C.P.A. with certifications in valuation and fraud examination, Epstein has no illusions about what the Comptroller’s job entails.
     For one thing, it would mean a substantial salary cut for him. But Epstein is not deterred by that. “After 27 years as an accountant, I was at a point in my life where I feel I’d like to do something different,” he said during a recent interview.
     Being Comptroller would offer him an opportunity to accomplish some goals for Maryland that he feels are “apolitical.” These include protecting the state’s Triple A bond rating, which saves taxpayers millions of dollars in interest annually (“that’s based on the ability of the State to have good financial management,” he explained); “make the Comptroller’s office more taxpayer friendly”; and make Maryland more business-friendly.
     “Maryland has lost a lot of our industrial base and high-tech jobs to Virginia, especially around D.C.,” he said. “We need to get into the game.” While he acknowledged that the Comptroller does not have a direct influence on such matters, he said he could use the office as a soapbox to tell the public what’s needed. “We’ve had programs in place, but they haven’t always been funded properly or operated properly,” he said. “We need to get into the game and produce at a high level.”
     “As business expands with better-paying jobs, it brings a geometric increase in taxes without increasing [tax] rates--and maybe even reducing rates,” he pointed out.
     “We’ve got to protect the environment, too,” he said. “The Bay is the State’s best resource, and it’s extremely important to keep it healthy. Businesses can work hand in hand with the State to preserve the environment if they’re reasonable. If they’re not reasonable, maybe we don’t want them here.”
     Epstein supports the Glendening administration’s “Smart Growth” initiatives. “It’s very important. We don’t want to see all our farms and agricultural areas turn into developments. But we have to avoid unfairness with zoning permits.”
     According to Epstein, one area in which the Comptroller’s office can be influential in attracting businesses and helping retain them would be to improve how the State does business. “The sales tax laws in Maryland are the worst set of laws I’ve ever seen,” said Epstein. “Businesses have been hurt and they didn’t even know they were violating the law. We can rewrite the tax laws to make sense.”
     He also sees a need for improved relationships between the general public and the Comptroller’s office. “The upper level of the Comptroller’s office is very good regarding taxpayer requests,” he said, “but on the service end, with the average taxpayers, it’s very frustrating. The government has got to become an extension of the people, not a dictatorship with a power to harass people.”
     One immediate area of attention for Epstein if elected Comptroller would be to work to avert “disaster” in the office’s computer systems when the year 2000 rolls around. “The Comptroller’s office is not ready,” he said. “Many of the State agencies are not ready. If I win [and take office in January 1999], that gives me less than a year to get this done. But I do understand the problems.”
     The health of the State’s pension fund concerns Epstein. “I think it should only be invested in blue chip stocks and bonds,” he said, recalling how, as Governor, Schaefer allocated 15% of the pension plan for a venture capital program.
     Epstein noted that Schaefer has avoided any occasions where the two would appear together. “He’s riding only on name recognition,” Epstein charged.
     Characterizing himself as a fiscal conservative and social moderate, Epstein said, “Government has a role to help people who can’t help themselves. But I don’t believe in a welfare system that allows people not to take responsibility. We can’t be obligated to support people for life if they’re capable of being trained.”
     He also takes a dim view of cronyism in awarding State construction contracts. The Comptroller sits on the State’s powerful Board of Public Works, which spends billions of dollars annually on projects. “A lot of my [accounting] practice has been with contractors,” said Epstein. Asked if this might cause him to have “favorites,” he responded, “They know me well enough to know they’d be treated harder because they were my clients.”
     How would he have dealt with the City’s two stadiums had he been Comptroller at the time? “Camden Yards is good for the City, and a good investment,” he said. “It has 80 games a year, and brings a lot of business into the City. But the Ravens [stadium] is a total waste, with so few games a year.”
     Another waste in Epstein’s view: the Light Rail system. “It doesn’t do nearly enough,” he said.
     What’s it like to run for office? “It’s so discouraging, because the public has almost no interest in politics,,” he answered. “But they complain every time they have taxes. They don’t bother to vote, or they always vote in the people they complain about.”
     Still, Epstein said, “I do expect to win. Eighty percent of Republicans will vote for me, and a lot of Glendening supporters will support me over Schaefer.”
     He’s not holding his breath that Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen Sauerbrey, who endorsed Michael Steele of Prince George’s County in the Primary, will endorse him. Epstein believes her strategy is “she thinks a lot of Schaefer Democrats will vote for her if she doesn’t endorse me.”
     This does not appear to worry Epstein. “I’m not a politician,” he said. “I won the Primary on less than $4,000. I wouldn’t accept any campaign contributions during the Primary. I never want to feel that I owe anybody anything.”


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This story was published on Oct. 7, 1998.