CHALLENGING BARBARA MIKULSKI:

Profile: George Liebmann, Republican for U.S. Senate

by Alice Cherbonnier
OPPORTUNITIES like this don’t come around very often: because Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski’s seat is considered a shoo-in in this year’s election, no big-name challengers with major backing from either major political party have come forward to challenge her.
     Four Republican “unknowns” have entered the race, in the hope of an unexpected upset--and in order to have a forum for their viewpoints.
     George Liebmann, 59, Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, knows the odds are against him. “I’m not a professional politician,” he says. “If I’m ever going to be in a race it must be when the professional politicians are scared off, and this is such a race.” He points out that, historically, political upsets have happened. “I don’t think it’s impossible that I could win,” he says. “Mikulski has never had a real opponent.”
     “I’m exasperated with Senator Mikulski’s type of representation,” he gives as a reason for entering the fray. “We haven’t had an effective Senator [in Maryland] since Mathias retired twelve years ago. Neither Sarbanes nor Mikulski has sponsored a significant piece of legislation. They’ve made no imprint on public policy.” In contrast, he pointed out how Charles C. “Mac” Mathias played leadership roles in civil rights, war powers, and clean water legislation, among other areas.
     An attorney in private practice who worked in various capacities in the administrations of both Gov. Hughes and Gov. Mandel, Mr. Liebmann is a principal in the law practice of Liebmann and Shively, P.A., with a specialty in commercial litigation and bankruptcy matters. A U.S. Bankruptcy Trustee since 1981, he also serves as general counsel of the Maryland Economic Development Corporation.
     With such a background, it is somewhat surprising to learn that a major focus of Mr. Liebmann’s campaign is the public education system. “I’m doing it because so many have expressed dissatisfaction,” he explained.
     Mr. Liebmann favors using vouchers for the last two years of high school. “That avoids a lot of the constitutional controversy,” he explains, “because the age to leave public schools is sixteen. Vouchers past that age would offer many students an inducement to stay in school.”
     He would also focus on teacher salary schedules. He finds it “absurd” that a second grade teacher earns the same as a 12th grade physics teacher.
     Mr. Liebmann also has a platform on creditor’s rights and bankruptcy. “I believe the federal bankruptcy laws are being seriously abused,” he says, “and also the consumer credit system.”
     He’s willing to take on the real estate industry: “I’m quite alarmed at the incentives we provide to mortgage homes. The tax-deductibility on home equity loans is a terrible mistake. It encourages people to borrow in the worst possible way. If we have a recession, there will be a major number of home foreclosures. Baltimore City in particular would be badly affected.”
     Describing himself as a “moderate conservative” on social issues and “more middle of the road” on economics and foreign policy, Mr. Liebmann--who holds a bachelor’s degree in government from Dartmouth College and a law degree from the University of Chicago (where he was managing editor of the Law Review)--says he would work across party lines if necessary should he be elected Senator.
     How does this candidate stand on the “Hot Button” issues?
     Abortion: “That’s a no-brainer. We should totally ban third-trimester abortions except to protect the mother. And it’s reasonable to have counseling requirements and parental notification requirements for teenagers.”
     Gun Control: “That’s a state and local issue. I’m opposed to further federal involvement. I’m alarmed at the expanded federal jurisdiction in all areas of criminal behavior.” States should use federal anti-crime block grants as they see fit, he believes, acknowledging that “some states can erode the policies of others.” But over time, he says, “we may see the evolution of the [gun control] laws, to be more strict. But it can’t be rushed because the reaction against [rushing a change in the law] would make it counter-productive.” In his view, it is unwise for the federal government to “run way ahead of public opinion.”
     Gay Rights: “That’s not the federal government’s business. Few things are less the government’s business. Society is more tolerant than it was thirty or forty years ago, and that’s all to the good--but reactions set in and extremists have a field day. There are limits to what the law can do, what it can aspire to do. We need to seek laws where there is true consensus.”
     Welfare Reform: “It’s a good thing. We need to assure aid has behavioral strings attached.”
     Foreign Policy: “Mikulski is a protectionist--she opposed NAFTA and GATT--and favored quota schemes. But also, paradoxically, she supports economic boycotts as a tool of foreign policy,” as with Iraq. “I think it’s immoral to visit retribution on civilians. Economic boycotts are counterproductive....NAFTA was a necessity because of the Mexican situation. It made possible economic development. Otherwise Mexico would be a powder-keg. I’m less enthusiastic about extending NAFTA further south. I’m not a doctrinaire free trader.”
     The Environment: “Lowering environmental standards is not wise. We should impose certain minimums. But it’s important to distinguish between what’s a real environmental standard, and what’s really protectionism. We can’t ask developing nations to spend as much money for environmental standards as wealthier nations.”
     Defense Spending: “It’s a mistake to talk about gross levels of spending. There are things that are needed and not needed. My overall prejudice is that nuclear weaponry is over-emphasized. There is already a ‘balance of terror.’ I’m skeptical of ‘Star Wars’ and programs like that. Conventional [weapons] systems are the problem areas needing improvement. There’s no question we’ve been careless, such as by supplying nuclear parts to other countries.”
     Tobacco: “The tobacco lawsuits are an outrage. The settlements to the states will be borne by tobacco users, not by the companies.”
     Flat Tax: “It conceals a multitude of sins. It might work if you have a very high personal exemption, but there’s no magic in it. Having one tax bracket does not greatly simplify the system. We’d be over-relying on direct taxes. Plus with the increasing international economy, it’s too easy to avoid taxes, and then too there’s the underground economy for the lower income segment [of the population]. We need a greater reliance on indirect taxes--excise, tobacco, alcohol, gasoline--and possibly a VAT [value added tax]. If we raised the indirect taxes, we would want offsetting reductions in income taxes.”
     Mr. Liebmann is running a stripped-down Primary campaign, using the $20,000-plus he has raised (versus the nearly $2 million campaign war chest raised by Sen. Mikulski) for direct mail pieces, local radio advertisements, and a planned tabloid-style newspaper. There will be a $100-a-plate dinner for Mr. Liebmann in August, and two smaller fundraisers in Baltimore and Ocean City toward the end of the month.
     The winner of the Republican Primary may receive a fiscal boost: “The Party has a curious rule,” explains Mr. Liebmann. “In general, they do not make endorsements for the Primary. But the victor of the Primary will presumably get somewhere between $400,000 to $450,000 for the general election campaign. But it’s not automatic.”
     The media are the key to the political process, Mr. Liebmann believes. To the extent the media fail to educate the public on the issues and compare and contrast candidates, the public cannot make an informed voting decision.
     “The political climate in Maryland is seriously impacted by the style of the Sun’s coverage,” he says. “They often do not seriously report what happens until the last minute. That cheapens the whole process. They seem to focus on where the candidates are mechanically--how much money they’ve raised and so on--than on the issues.”
     One thing is certain about the Primary Election on September 15: there willbe a Republican challenger to Senator Mikulski. And who that person is will determine the quality of their political debate prior to the General Election in November.


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This story was published on July 29, 1998.